the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

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“LIKE”-MINDEDNESS

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

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

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

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

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

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

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THE INVISIBLE MIDDLE

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

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

 

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

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

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

YOURS (FOR THE MOMENT)

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

A tensecond night exposure from a Fujifilm Instax camera.

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

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

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

Some Fuji instant models offer double exposures.

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

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

PARING AND SPARING

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

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ALL REAL ESTATE IN A PHOTOGRAPH IS PRIME REAL ESTATE.

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

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

The tighter shot lurking within.

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

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

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

THE PAIRING

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

NEW PHOTOGRAPHERS TYPICALLY EXPERIENCE A MAJOR DISCONNECT between what they visualize and what their camera can realize. The gap between what you want and what your gear can deliver is initially very wide, mainly because you haven’t yet learned how to tell your camera what you want.

This gap is usually narrowed as you simply spend enough time with your equipment. But a true pairing, a real Harry-Potter-sorting-hat bond between yourself and a camera calls for a much deeper knowledge….of your needs, certainly, but more importantly, of what your camera is capable of doing for you. Sure, the more you shoot, the better you generally get at asking it to perform specific tasks, but to cross over into excellence you also will know more precisely what that device’s strengths and limits are.

Hundreds of factors determine what makes a camera right for you. Is the camera too basic to deliver, or too advanced for you to handle? Is its lens unsharp at the corners? Does your shutter lag? Do you want the camera to technically underperform to achieve an artistic effect? Can it reliably be counted on to shoot 95% of what you need, especially  if it’s the only camera you can pack? How is its color rendition, its speed, it flash output, etc., etc.?

The image seen here is not really an example of anything except that, on the day I took the subway into Manhattan to attempt it, I knew I would not want to walk the city sidewalks laden with equipment. Certainly I did not achieve everything I was after with this shot, taken inside the lobby of the Chrysler building. However, I now know that I brought the one lens that gave me half a shot at getting something. What I’m saying is that, if I hadn’t known my equipment, I would not have been able to to even try to make that choice.

You will eventually have spent enough time with your cameras that you will know within an instant which one to grab for any given job. You’ll prepare better, waste less time, and ask “what happened?” far less often. And from that toolbox, one camera, one nearly perfect link to your skills and vision, will eventually emerge over all the others as the predominant “go-to” in your arsenal. And once that pairing is complete, you’ll be able to shoot anything, anywhere, under any conditions.

FOR THOSE JUST JOINING US…

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IT’S NOW OFFICIALLY BEENA WHILE” since I last did a group thanks/welcome to the many of you who’ve joined The Normal Eye in recent months. I apologize for the lapse in manners, and assure you that, while I usually use the right spoon for soup and cross only at the light, I still haven’t gotten around to getting my 1987 Christmas cards sent out. It’s a process.

So, assuming that a particular post has recently motivated you to subscribe to this here small-town newspaper, thank you. And, as a way of demonstrating what to expect from us on a day-to-day basis, here’s a little backstory on TNE:

I wanted to create this forum because I feared, at the beginning of the digital age, that photography was becoming a reflexive act, a kind of knee-jerk spasm made ever more convenient but also more robotic due to amazing technical advancements that were almost literally taking the pictures for us. For sure, much of the muss and fuss of film was going away (a net gain), but the incredible foolproofness of even the most basic digital cameras was making speed and ease bigger considerations than the skills of seeing and planning, the most valuable traits of the slower, analog world…. a net loss, it seemed to me, for photography as an art.

Now to be clear, this platform is not, and has never claimed to be, a technical tutorial, and indeed the percentage of how-to advice we feature has always lagged way behind the why do it stuff. The Normal Eye is an examination of motivations, a way of restoring the human eye to its primary role in how pictures are made…..of normalizing it (hence the name). The eye outranks equipment, formats, subject matter, even formal training. With the eye, you can master your message with a cardboard box and a pinhole: without it, you won’t get your image made with an army of Leicas.

Happily, in the intervening years, the tide in all phases of photography has begun to turn back toward the instinctual, with amazing work by the world’s shooters that is once again placing technology in the service of the imagination. From the Lomography and Lensbaby revolutions to the resurgence of all-manual “art lenses” to a re-evaluation of (and partial return to) film, the art in photography is reasserting itself. Certainly no one answer works for everyone, but the questions are getting better.

So that’s what you signed up for: a conversation, a confrontation, a refusal to think of any single method or approach as “final” or “definitive”…..a promise to yourself to make pictures on purpose, with eyes wide open.

Optimized.

Normalized.

Thanks for joining the party.

TRUE LIES

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

NO SOONER HAD THE INFANT ART OF PHOTOGRAPHY asked the world of the 1800’s to trust it as the ultimate in visual verity (the camera doesn’t lie!) than it also began to turn itself into the most unreliable of narrators. Truth-telling and bald-face lying grew up side-by-side in the picture-making world, and they have been conjoined twins ever since. If P.T. Barnum was right that “there’s a sucker born every minute”, then certainly every one of those chumps has had his very own faked photograph.

Barnum’sMummified Unicorn“, 1893 (?)

Some of the fraud has been benign, as when Julia Margaret Cameron dressed up her friends to portray the great authors and heroes of history, or when landscape artists combined seashores from one negative with clouds from another for a pleasing montage. Other fakes were more sinister, with nations manufacturing claims of war crimes against their foes or tabloids “proving” conspiracy theories with massaged “evidence”. And somewhere in the middle has always been the “that’s not real, is it?” photo, something which we can’t allow ourselves to either believe or resist, the charming charlatan, the obvious put-on.

Barnum and his bunch were fairly coy about their fakery, filling the first era of mass-produced press photography with doctored images that were literally too good to be true and challenging all comers to verify their veracity. Today, fakes are more ironic than compelling, since the tools to concoct them are so universally available as to make them commonplace. The object isn’t so much to actually fool anyone, but to comment on how easy it is to make the camera lie.

Years after Barnum’s death, the circus that later bore his name actually made a half-hearted attempt to concoct its own “unicorn” for its shows, something even the great humbug himself never did. Using a phone app, indifferent lighting and focus, and the freakishly arranged shape of an old bagpipe on display at Phoenix’ Musical Instrument Museum, I worked up a reasonable fake tintype of a unicorn’s mummified head,  the like of which might have graced the master showman’s old dime museum. It took me about five minutes.

The main difference between the fakery of the Victorian age and the variety we practice today is that, in the 21st century, the fakers, myself included, confess right away. We want to get the points for being oh, so clever. And since you know we have the means to show you anything, we already know you believe almost nothing, so it’s no longer about convincing you a unicorn exists. It’s about the ride.

Photography didn’t just arrive at the place where truth is negotiable, anymore than fiction just recently became about “making stuff up”. We pitcher folk have always been, to a degree, untrustworthy. But as Barnum said, “the bigger the humbug, the better people will like it”. Hurry, hurry, hurry…… step right up….

SAFE AT HOME

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IF YOU WANT TO HEAR THE UNIVERSE LAUGH, goes the adage, make a plan. Or, in my specific case, if you want to ensure that pigeons hang around your house forever, make a plan to keep pigeons off the premises.

Start by installing tiny metal spikes in the cross beams right over the entrance to your front door. You’ve seen them, those steely porcupine quills designed to bar entry to all the nooks and crannies where birds love to assemble to conduct aerial assault on your sidewalks. Spikes go up, birds get packing, no cruelty, no pavement poo, everyone’s a winner, right?

And if you buy that story, I have bridge I want to sell you..

But, hey, I’m a humane slob, so I write the check, go for the whole spiny effect atop the house, and look forward to a lifetime of carefree maintenance and lordly leisure. Only someone forgot to send the spike company’s brochure to the curve-billed thrasher who decided to weave twigs between the spikes, further reinforcing his domicile against the elements. And wasn’t it nice of us to build the first phase of his nest for him? Sure, we’re swell that way.

So no pigeons living above the entrance, but still birds. Small hitch in the plan, however: Mama Thrasher isn’t a hit with the Neighborhood Watch Association (Avian Division) and leaves town. And here we see the fates in all their sadistic genius: a mother pigeon moves into my “pigeon-free” zone like a hobo in a rail car and proceeds to lay her own eggs. The circle of life is now complete!

So, as anyone wise enough to realize when he’s licked, I resolve to at least photograph this grand cosmic joke. Only the act of my going in and out of my front door each day spooks Mrs. Pudge to flight, and so it takes nearly a week to sneak a shot of her in residence……an ordinary, unchallenging, Photo 101 shot that a toddler could make, if only Nature can stop laughing at me long enough to say cheese.

Obviously, with this kind of outcome, I will not be rushing to bear-proof the back yard. Now if you’ll excuse me, the flowers could us a soaking rain, so I’m off to get my car washed.

 

TINY DANCER

 

i am my own dawn and dusk, my own tides and torrents.

my rhythms are also mine, even as they are also all rhythms, my limbs animated by wills and intentions not my own and yet to become my own before i, in turn, transmit them on.

my limbs reshape the dreams of age coursing through them, adding their own undulations and echoes as I convey them to their next hosts:

all is received by me, both the ancient and the unborn:

all energy takes on my own contours, as first I contain it, then, in an instant, make it uncontainable

conducting it, amplifying it, releasing it onward.

the eternal dance comes to me complete from all ages

and yet i complete it again

seeking its next dancer

the one who will always, miraculously, complete it anew.

——-michael perkins

 

BOKEH ON A BUDGET

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

A Sovietera Helios 44M.

THE EXCLUSIVITY AND ONEUPMANSHIP which used to divide photographers into warring camps over lenses (it must be primes!) or cameras (I myself have always been a Leica man!) has met its match in yet another pompous arena of dubious distinction.

I’m speaking of the trendy and tawdry world of blur snobs.

You remember blur, right? All that stuff in your pictures that isn’t, you know, sharp? You wanted some of it in there to set your focused subject apart or pop it forward, so you set your depth of field appropriately. So we’re done now, right?

Wrong. Because you might not have the cool kind of blur in your pictures. Cool blur is called “bokeh”, because we said so, and its various swirls, refractions and currents means you must now master blur the way you once sought to master focus. The thing you once regarded as mere negative space is now incredibly artistic negative space. Or you’d better spend money until it is.

The world’s bokeh bullies eventually started to aggressively market glass guaranteed to deliver lots of it, for lots of dollars. The cool-blur movement revived interest in the 19th-century Petzval lenses, great, fast optics for portraits which, as a by-product of their slightly flawed design, delivered big-time swirly blur. Thing is, engineering new lenses to do that one “wrong”  thing on purpose meant coughing up an astounding amount of scratch for a lens that is, essentially, a one trick pony. Repeat after me, children: hipness is never cheap.

Turns out that, instead of popping for anywhere from two to six hundred peppers for “cool insurance”, you can get the same effect from a lens that’s so globally plentiful that it can be had for under $35.00. Enter the humble Helios.

The Helios‘ “swirlybokeh.

Helios lenses were among the most highly produced lenses in Soviet history, marching out of USSR factories pretty much non-stop from 1958 to 1992. They were based on several different Carl Zeiss Biotar designs, and, while mostly used on Russian SLRs, were also built for select Pentax models. One of the most popular, the 44M, seen here, was the kit lens for generations of cameras, shooting fully manual as a 58mm prime.

Shooting the Helio wide open at f/2, and with a decent separation between foreground and textured backgrounds, you’ll get a bokeh that looks like a gazillion little circles that spray into a swirl as they move toward the edge of the frame. As the rose image attests, it does look very nice, just not $600 worth of nice. You also need the patience of a brain surgeon to get used to nailing the focus. That and consistent access to large depositories of Crown Royal. But I digress.

Helios lenses are perfectly serviceable glass for general purposes, although they are a little soft at the open end. The Russian Federation, which, if you haven’t heard, is a little cash-strapped these days, is sitting on millions of these puppies, so prices are low, lenses can be easily adapted to most camera brands (mine came battle-ready for Nikon), and shipping is often free. For between 35 and 50 bucks, they’re an occasional guilty pleasure. On the other hand, hocking your houseboat or delaying heart surgery for the new toys marketed by the blur snobs to do the same thing is both needless and nuts.

 

THE TRUTH ACCORDING TO WHOM?

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE FIRST DECADES OF PHOTOGRAPHY, like the earliest years of any emerging art, operated under a different set of rules than those we set for ourselves today. More accurately, we may now operate in a world in which there are no immutable rules at all. It’s hard to imagine a book with the title Why It Does Not Have To Be In Focus being published in, say, 1865.

When a different way of viewing the world comes mostly through a technical breakthrough (i.e., the invention of the camera), it can understandably be regarded, at least at first, as a measuring or recording device, a way of creating a merely physical chronicle of the world. Thus a camera can initially be regarded like a microscope or a seismograph….as a way of quantifying data…. which is precisely how early cameras were seen. Catalogue the great statesmen and authors for the ages! Assemble a library of images of the ancient world! Map the continent!

And so the first rules of photography bent toward the scientific. Make an accurate record. Not surprisingly, it took decades for picture-taking to be freed from the constraints of mere reality (as painting already was) and move toward the making of pictures, as photography eventually became an interpretive art. I often wonder if this explains why, of all the various subjects available to me, I am less comfortable in landscape work than in any other area.

There seems to be no way of escaping the pure recording function of it. I feel constrained to make it accurate, as if it’s for an official government survey, or as though I were being graded on the results by some imperious professor. I know the problem lies with me. I seem anchored to the idea of rendering scenery “real” (I hate that word), when, in fact, I could exercise just as much interpretative control over it that I do over everything else I shoot.

Is the shot shown here less real for having been partially defocused, or is it more personal because I have gently asked you to look at the subject in my own way? Do I really even have to ask these questions? Quite obviously, the rules of photography as we understand them are no longer based on pure science. Yes, it is “about” the lenses, to a degree, but it’s more completely about the human eye. We are not machines, nor should our art be purely the product of machines.

INTIMATE STRANGERS

Colin Patrick Perkins, December, 2017

By MICHAEL PERKINS

AT THIS STAGE OF MY LIFE, I find myself playing two conflicting games of “who’s there” as regards my identity in the context of generations. On one hand, in front of the shaving mirror, I can clearly see my grandmother’s face pushing its way forward through my own. On the other, I now can see echoes of the “serious” younger man I thought I was being inscribed across the features of my adult children.

It is too late for me to explore my grandmother’s face for further clues, beyond studying the images others made of her. Sadly, as a photographic subject, she was amazingly opaque. I can’t think of a single image of her that reveals or explains an iota of what I know emotionally of her. Looking down into her soul through a photograph is as unlikely as trying to see through a lead-lined wall. As for myself and my three legatees, we seem not only to be facial re-interpretations of each other, but occasionally, a glimpse into what she was as well. Strange.

My children are all serious contenders, in that they believe that life is to be gotten on with, no dilly-dallying, if you please. They are, in that way, far better agents of change and action than I was. Time has begun to burn childhood’s last traces from their features, but the remaining faces are those of big, deep livers, of striver-survivors. Their own legends are now inscribed on them: they are, focused, intentional, resolute, courageous. I see the concern and apprehension I once wore on my own face: I read the uncertainty of their contending in this world. But I also see every laugh, every explosion of joy, every haywire vision and dream that I knew in myself: I see their first giggles, their earliest amazements.

And so, although my camera can only see a fraction of these things unaided, I am now able to provide that aid: I see now with ever-new eyes. These intimate strangers are my teachers, not my students. My grandmother, cipher of raw endurance that she was, might even have recognized herself in these new iterations of old star-stuff. She speaks to me in the mirror, as if to remind me, get it right, boy. Similarly, my children speak to me in pictures, enjoining me to do the same thing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TOOL OR TOY?

 

A cellphone shot modified with Hipstamatic’s dedicated “Tintype” app.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

GEORGE EASTMAN’S INTRODUCTION OF ROLL FILM onto the world camera market in 1884 became the biggest single factor in the mass popularization of photography. But it was not the first process to make pictures fast, easy, portable, or affordable. That honor must go to the humble tintype.

All of photography’s earliest processes were slow, inefficient in their use of light, and extremely perishable. Daguerreotypes, which recorded pictures as a positive developed on a chemically treated glass slide, created crisp, almost three-dimensional images, but they produced no negatives and were fragile, expensive one-of-a-kinds.Their long exposure times kept photography a prisoner of the studio, as well as pricing it out of the average person’s technical and financial reach.

The 1850’s saw the first appearance of the tintype, a process which recorded pictures on treated steel (no tin was ever used, ironically). This was something else again: itinerant shutterbugs at fairs and festivals could be trained to make them with a minimum of technical skill, and at a fraction of the time per exposure, with a finished portrait delivered to the customer within minutes. Better still for the tintype was its durability and portability. Thousands of servicemen posed for them before enlisting for the Civil War, and thousands more carried “counterfeits” of their sweethearts into battle. Tintypes became the everyman’s first personal photographic keepsake. They were Polaroids before Polaroid.

Like the daguerreotype, the tintype was irreplaceable, since it also produced no negative. Each image was also marked by its own visual tattoos, as uneven application of emulsion on the metal or surface irregularities in the plates”baking” errors into the pictures. Like diamonds, tintypes were beautiful partly because of their flaws: their imperfections lent them an unworldly quality, an unspoken time machine cue to the brain, an airy something that purely digital emulations have now brought back, as they have many other classic looks.

Hipstamatic, the most widespread lens and film simulator of the cell phone age, sells its own dedicated Tintype app, a cute faker that generates artificial plate grain, the random edges that occur with well-worn souvenirs, the random sharpness, even the option of decorating the conversion of your full-color original photo with the appearance of the hand-tinting of the early 1900’s. A useless toy? Perhaps, if all you do with it is to make a snap of your lunch look “retro”. But this is the world we live in: that which was once the leading edge of an art has become our plaything. Or, more precisely, tintype technique can only become either toy or tool, goldmine or gimmick,  depending on whoever’s at the helm.

HAPPY-EN-STANCE

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IT’S FAIR TO SAY that photographers are occasionally the worst possible judges of what will save or spoil a picture. Try as we may to judiciously assemble the perfect composition, there are random forces afoot in the cosmos that make our vaunted “concepts” look like nothing more than lucky guesses. And that’s just the images that actually worked out.

All great public places have within them common spaces in which the shooter can safely trust to such luck, areas where the general cross-traffic of humanity guarantees at least a fatter crop of opportunity for happy marriages between passersby and props. At Boston’s elegant Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the surrounding walls of the central court are the main public collecting point, with hundreds of visitors framed daily by the arched windows and the architectural splendor of a re-imagined 15th-century Venetian palace. The couple seen here are but one of many pairings observable in a typical day.

The pair just happens to come ready-made, with enough decent luck assembled in one frame for almost anyone to come away with a half-decent picture. The size contrast between the man and the woman, their face-to-face gaze, their balanced location in the middle arch of the window, and their harmony with the overall verticality of the frame seem to say “mission accomplished”. I don’t need to know their agenda: they could be reciting lines of Gibrhan to each other or discussing mortgage rates: visually, it doesn’t matter. At the last instant, however, the seated woman, in shadow just right of them, presents some mystery. Is she extraneous, i.e., a spoiler, or does she provide a subplot? In short, story-wise, do I need her?

I decide that I do. Just as it’s uncertain what the couple is discussing, it’s impossible to know if she’s overhearing something intimate and juicy, or just sitting taking a rest. And I like leaving all those questions open, so, in the picture she stays. Thus, what you see here is exactly one out of one frame(s) taken for the hell of it. Nothing was changed in post-production except a conversion to monochrome. Turns out that even the possibility of budding romance can’t survive the distraction of Mrs. Gardner’s amazing legacy seen in full color, and the mystery woman is even more tantalizing in B&W. Easy call.

As we said at the beginning, working with my own formal rules of composition, I could easily have concluded that my picture would be “ruined” by my shadowy extra. And, I believe now, I would have been wrong. As photographers, we try to look out for our own good, but may actually know next to nothing about what that truly is.

And then the fun begins….

HANDIWORK

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THERE ARE SEVERAL LANGUAGES OF HUMAN BEHAVIOR that are truly universal, experiential tongues for which no translation is neither possible nor necessary. The visual language of photography is one. Music is certainly another. Both have the ability to cross cultures, continents, and generations.

Almost since its arrival, the universal language of the visual has worked to capture the raw energy of the musical….attempting, even, to try to track that energy to its human source, the exact junction where the personality directs and guides the voice of the instrument. For some photographers, this energy is in the sweaty, furrowed brow of a Miles Davis, his lips laboring over a lyrical line in a dark club. For others, it may be the skyward arch of Jimi Hendrix’ wrist as it tears free from a Stratocaster. For me, the magic is in human hands.

Hands are the tools through which musicians translate yet another language, that which starts in the brain and flows through to keys, pipes, buttons, strings. Fingers shape song, modify moods, and dictate terms to other musicians. They wield batons, transfer a composer’s wishes to paper. They signal, they hint. Hands are both the original maestros and the humblest servants of music. That qualifies them as wellsprings of visual drama, and where there is drama, there are pictures.

Of course, not all drama need be, well, dramatic. The unspoken linkage between musicians, even in small, simple gatherings such as the tight Irish quintet seen here, turns all those hands into a dance company: cues emerge: signals move from singer to soloist: and, if we’re lucky, photographs track all that transmission, that silent language, that unspoken eloquence.

EVERYTHING OLD IS….OLD AGAIN

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ONE OF THE LOWHANGINGFRUITEASYLAYUP STORIES in 2017 pop culture circles was the report that, after years of manufacturing its own version of the defunct Polaroid Corporation’s instant camera film, an appropriately named company known as the Impossible Project had acquired all of Polaroid’s remaining intellectual property. As a result, the IP, now re-born as Polaroid Originals, could now begin making it own brand-new Polaroid cameras.

The story had great appeal for the analog-was-better crowd, the LP-hugging CD haters who pegged the decline of civilization to the day mankind first embraced zeroes and ones. Writer after writer wiped aside a misty tear to rhapsodize about the OneStep2, the first new “Polaroid” camera in more than a decade, and to recount their own fond memories of the “unique” quality of each unreproducable shot, as well as the wonderfully unpredictable randomness of wondering if your next shot, or indeed the entire rest of the film pack, would yield anything in the way of an image that was worth wiping your nose on.

Which brings us to the Brutal Main Truth of the matter: Polaroids were never really good cameras. They were engineered to fulfill a need for uncomplicated and quick gratification, marketed to an audience of snapshooters and selfiemongers. Inventor Edward Land placed all of his emphasis on perfecting the spontaneous function of his film, and to simplifying the taking of pictures to the point that your goldfish could pretty much operate the cameras. That said, Polaroid film was unstable, balky, moody, mushy, and generally useless as an archival medium. Of course, the company tried to shape an alternate narrative: certain high-end, professional grade iterations of the camera appeared at the margins of the photo market, with Polaroid hiring Ansel Adams as a “consultant” on color (which is a little like hiring a childless person to head up a daycare), and the brand got a pass from culture vultures like Andy Warhol, who tried to legitimize the cool, what-the-hell factor of the cameras for a generation hooked on immediacy. But in the end, Polaroid photography delivered mere convenience and fun, seldom art.

In terms of its legacy, there are no classic Polaroid lenses, nor any other evidence that the company ever trusted its customers with taking pictures like grown-ups. Model after model refused to allow users to take even basic manual control of the process of photography, offering instead frozen focal lengths, a stingy array of shutter speeds, and cave-man-level focusing options. Finally, by the dawn of the digital age, Polaroid whimpered out as it had roared in, making the process ever easier, the gear ever cheaper, and the results ever worse.

Polaroid Originals is now poised to do something its namesake never did: make a real good camera for people who also like the tactile, hold-it-in-your-hand sensation of instant photography. But they’re off to a lame start, if the brainless, artless OneStep2 is any indication. Not only is this gob of plastic optically stunted, the film made by Polaroid Originals, who had to figure out the process without any blueprint or guidance from Polaroid, looks even worse than actual Polaroid film, which is a little like finding out that your mud pies don’t look as elegant as everyone else’s. And did we mention the cost, which works out to nearly two dollars per print?

And so, for analog hogs, everything old is really just old again. As we speak, Kodak is preparing to produce an all new Super-8 movie camera… for around $2,400. Surely we can’t be two far from a loving re-launch of the Ford Edsel. I hear they gots a cigarette lighter right in the dashboard…….

CUES

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHIC COMPOSITION is never the mere geographic assignment of elements within a frame. Certainly, mapping out what is to go up, down, left, or right in a picture is a vital part of the process, but you have to do more than rearrange the deck chairs. You also have to make real decisions about where the ship is sailing.

Aperture, focus, the use of light…..make up your own list of contributing factors… the assembly of a composition is about setting the terms of engagement between your vision and the eyes of the audience. It is never merely about the limits or contents within the frame. This means that a picture that you would shoot in a certain way today may seem completely out of synch with your thinking a year from now, because your idea of composition will (and should) be in constant flux.

The Clearing (2016)

In my own case, I have spent a lot of the last five years re-evaluating focus, deciding in many more cases to use it selectively, where, previously, I might have applied it more evenly. This is an exploratory journey, and I am not sure where it will wind up. I don’t really feel as if I’m abandoning sharpness per se, just trying to decide how much of it I need in a given situation, making its use a lot more intentional choice than it has historically been for me.

Focus is a way of prioritizing the visual elements in a picture. It cues the audience as to what information there is and how hard to look to retrieve it. It also tells if there is no object or “mission” in a picture, as in a totally abstract arrangement. Photographer Uta Barth, describing why practically all of her work is deliberately refocused, notes that “the question, for me, is how I can make you more aware of your activity of looking. I value confusion…”

Indeed, placing incomplete information before a viewer, about focus or anything else in a photograph, is inviting him/her into an interaction…..with all parties having a conversation about what a picture means. For the viewer, it means exercising more control: for the photographer, who no longer has to spell everything out, it can be freeing.

 

ONE MOTIVE AT A TIME

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

CROWDS ARE OFTEN DESCRIBED as if they were single entities, as if each member were acting in accord with all others, like cells combining to form an organ. Writers likewise use the word “crowd” as a kind of collective noun, as in “the crowd went wild” or ” the crowd grew restless”, again making it seem as if a collection of individuals can act as a single thing. Spend time in any crowd as a photographic observer, however, and it becomes obvious that there is virtually no such thing as group behavior. Everyone comes to a crowd separately, one motive, one agenda at a time, and photographers can begin to harvest real human stories by seeing them that way.

This person is not trying to bepart of the crowd“.

To be sure, there is scope and drama in making uber-pictures that convey the sheer size and scope of mass gatherings. Likewise, there are certainly moments when crowds seem to be moving or acting as one, as in the moment when the winning run is hit or a rousing orator evokes a roar of approval. But look carefully within those general waves of action and you will still see the individual proudly on display. By turns, he is, even in a crowd, engaged, irritated, enthusiastic, bored, tired, ecstatic, and angry, just as visibly as if he were in any other situation. Get close enough to a mass of people and you’ll see The Person…..perhaps attempting to be part of something larger than himself, but still pushing his own brand of street theatre, still brandishing his own quirks.

Demonstrations, parades, celebrations, protests….they’re all staging points for persons, persons who give up their stories to the photographer’s eye no less in a mob than in the family den. Wait for the moment when that happens and grab it. Teach yourself to look at a crowd and see the person who’s truly one in a million.

EVERYTHING IN ITS PLACE

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

EVERY PHOTOGRAPH REMOVES SOMETHING from its original context, extracting it from its proper place in the world at large. In the act of placing things in a frame, the photographer excludes whatever else once surrounded that thing, so that, in the final result, a vast valley is reduced to one tree in one part of one meadow. Our mind stipulates to the supporting reality of whatever was extracted, and we either approve or disapprove of the shooter’s arbitrary editorial choice in composing the frame.

And so pictures often annihilate an object’s “origin story”, since we can’t often search them to view what something “came from”. Objects in a photograph merely are, with little obvious evidence of what they used to be. Sometimes that means that, when we do see where something originated, a picture of it can seem exotic or strange. And, as photographers, we can train ourselves to find that one view of a thing that has been, in effect, under-explored.

1/125 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 24mm.

In the above picture, something that we tend to think of as being organically “born” in a natural setting (i.e., a cactus)  is shown being deliberately farmed within a controlled environment (i.e., a greenhouse). It looks a little wrong, a bit strange…..certainly not typical. And yet, an interesting picture can be made from the scene, simply because we never see a cactus’ origin story, given that most photographs don’t select that story within their frames. This picture really doesn’t display its information in an original fashion: it’s the thing, in this particular context, that makes the photograph seem novel.

As always, the choices made inside and outside the frame of a photograph set the narrative for it. It’s therefore the most important choice a photographer can make.

STEP RIGHT UP

1/1250 sec., f/5, ISO 100, 55mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHY SHOULD ALWAYS OPERATE, at least to some extent, as a cultural mile marker, a chronicle of what time has taken away, a scrapbook of vanishings and extinctions. We make records. We bear witness. We take pictures of the comings and the goings.

One of the things that has been going, since the coming of the permanent, Disneyeque theme parks, those sanitized domains of well-regulated recreation, is the great American carnival, in all its gaudy and ever so slightly dodgy glory. Loud, crude and exotically disreputable, these neon and canvas gypsy camps of guilty pleasure once sprang up in fields and vacant lots across the nation, laden with the delicious allure of original sin, that is, if the first apple of Eden had been dipped in shiny red candy. We came, we saw, whe rode, we ate, we clicked off millions of snapshots on our Kodak Brownies.

1/125 sec., f/5, ISO 100, 165mm.

The thing that made it all so magical was geography. Unlike Seven Flags or Cedar Point, the carnival came to us. Like the circus, the carnival was coming to your town, just down your block. That meant that your drab streets were transformed into wonderlands in the few hours it took for the roustabouts to assemble their gigantic erector sets into rickety Ferris wheels and Tilt-a-Whirls. And then there was the faint whiff of danger, with rides that made dads ask “is this thing safe?” and crews that made moms repeat horrific tales of what happens to Little Children Who Talk To Strangers.

It was heaven.

1/250 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

The images seen here are a partial return to that sketchy paradise, with the arrival in my neighborhood, this week of a carnival in an area that hasn’t hosted one in well over a decade. It’s almost as if Professor Marvel just ballooned in from Oz, or Doc and Marty had suddenly materialized in the DeLorean. It’s that weird. Four days in, and I’m there with a different lens each time, sopping up as much trashy delight as I can before the entire mirage folds and all our lives return to, God help us, normal. Photographs are never a substitute for reality, any more than a hoof print is a horse. But when dreams re-appear, however fleetingly, well past their historical sell-by date, well, I’ll settle for a few swiftly stolen souvenirs.

 

 

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