the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

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LOVE, IN SPITE

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHERS GET A LOT OF PRACTICE HATING WHAT THEY HAVE SHOT, failure being, in our thinking, the necessary road to eventual success. As with any art, mastery is initially shaped by misfires, and so shooters spend a lot of time marinating in regret, longing to close the uncloseable gap between the vision of their eye and the fruit of their fingers. This, in turn, means that we are on very, very intimate terms with the pictures that merely “came close”.

But pining over what we believe we muffed, although it seems like the very heart of humility, is the wrong way to get to better pictures. Instead of thinking in terms of “keepers” and “klunkers”, we should realize that there is no completely wrong or right photograph. Even something we seem to have botched contains the germ of an idea we once loved, and even an imperfect execution shows that we were, after all, in search of something, well, worth searching for. Likewise, even our favorite images bear the same bruises as even the most succulent apple, in that there is always something we have left undone, or under-realized.

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The Joy Dispenser, 2021

At the risk of sounding like I have attended too many post-graduate Zen classes, making a photographic image is, in itself, an essential good. It’s an act of faith….in our concepts, in our skills, in our evolving sense of truth and worth. In that light, we have many pictures which we claim that we don’t “love” which we should love…in spite. We begin making pictures by saying that some things in the ever-zipping parade of instants that make up our life deserve to be savored, preserved. We continue making them because that initial concept was true, and every salvageable frame that we produce after that starting point proves just how true it was.

And so, just as this image is a balance between what I wish I’d done better and what I actually manage to occasionally do perfectly, your best work is half-ripe, half-rotten fruit (the apple, remember?) We are all, as Cat Stevens wrote, On The Road To Findout. Stop trying to make the perfect picture and keep making the potential picture. Over the long haul, it’s a richer, more satisfying journey by far.

FLY/NO FLY ZONE

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THIS MORNING, AS I WALKED THROUGH A LOCAL PARK, my “poster child” for this current phase of the pandemic became, in essence, a poster bird.

One thing is certain about predators: they’re not crazy about hanging with humans in close quarters, certainly not at a distance of little more than twenty feet, which is where I found this red-tailed hawk staring back at me on the edge of a suburban park, only ten yards away from the nearest house and barely fifteen feet off the ground. Raptors typically keep their distance and maximize their stealth in heavily peopled areas, and so I was quite astounded that this fellow was remaining within camera range for what seemed forever.

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Then I noticed his left foot….or, rather, his lack of one.

A million different scenarios zipped through my brain as to how this elegant hunter might have been rendered, in the worst case, unable to hunt, to feed himself. A fight? A storm? A birth defect? All roads led to the same conclusion… that an intervention of some kind was needed. A call was made to the local wildlife rescue agency, and the street coordinates were reported. Stay there, a volunteer said, and we will call you back in a half an hour….

And so we walked….literally “once more around the park”. As we killed the clock, I began to think of the bird as emblematic of where we all are at the moment. Technically, we still might have wings, but can we fly? In the wake of our various recent “injuries”, can we protect ourselves from the possibility of even worse harm? Can we keep our balance, adapt, adjust? Which skills are most crucial to the new “us”, and which of us might prove too damaged to make the transition?

Upon returning to the tree just ahead of the wildlife agency’s return call, we found that our charge had already answered most of those questions: he was gone. The agency told us that many such hobbled birds manage, and that, once on the wing, no rescuers could capture our hawk anyhow. Its survival was completely a product of its own actions from here forward. Just like us. God, just like us……

A SYMPHONY IN AQUAMARINE

By MICHAEL PERKINS

A DRIVE DOWN OCEAN AVENUE IN SANTA MONICA, CALIFORNIA, directly opposite the town’s fabled Pacific Park (and that glorious neon pier entrance), is usually a slow and stately one, given the nonstop traffic along the city’s main artery, which is itself a major link to the Pacific Coast Highway. The streets are regularly clogged with visitors, a given in a city that, only a hundred years ago, was a sleepy bedroom community far enough away from Hollywood Proper to be thought of as an exclusive (and slightly shady) getaway for the rich and famous.

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The Georgian Hotel, Santa Monica, California, July 3, 2021

One of SM’s most venerable architectural citizens is the gloriously Deco-rative Georgian Hotel, which, during the waning days of Prohibition, gained notoriety as a glamorous go-to for those seeking a little under-the-table taste. In the California of the late 1920’s, Santa Monica was still not long past its days as a tiny Chinese-Japanese fishing village, with the site of the hotel surrounded by a small forest, and….not much else. The Georgian’s formal 1933 opening coincided with the return of legal liquor, which confirmed its status as a chic retreat for the film community, with the likes of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard enjoying the ocean views alongside occasional clandestine stays from Al Capone and Bugsy Siegel. The hotel came to be the visual signature of the town’s full entry into the 20th century, and of the non-stop westward sprawl from L.A. that would continue to transform the waterfront for decades to come. By 2000, this elegant symphony in aquamarine attained monument status, and underwent a multi-million dollar restoration, guaranteeing its survival to the present day.

Photographing what I call a First-Tier-Postcard attraction, a place that everyone feels they simply must check off their bucket lists, doesn’t often result in anything new being done, beyond merely recording one’s “take” of it. In some ways, famous places are the most challenging things to shoot, since you’re in competition with the entire world in your desire to say something personal or unique. But, as this summer marks almost twenty years since the last time I photographed the Georgian, I recently approached the task with as much “just do it” zen energy as possible. It continues to delight and fascinate me with its quiet elegance, and its ability to evoke a world that has largely vanished, even as it’s been joined by other brighter, brassier neighbors over the years. Sometimes it’s just a privilege to be standing where so much magic has happened, and to take comfort that, to a degree, some of the old spell persists.

A MASK OF A DIFFERENT KIND

By MICHAEL PERKINS

HUMANS EXPERIENCE AMNESIA IN TWO DISTINCT WAYS, both by organic accident, i.e., an affliction or injury that erases the memory, and by a deliberate effort to leave ugly things by the side of the road like a shed skin. It is the second kind with which we are concerned here.

Since early 2021, photographers have leveled their lenses at every aspect of The Great Hibernation, as a world of throngers became, overnight, a planet of cave-dwellers. We shot deserted streets, shuttered businesses, desperate moments in ERs. Now, as we all variously wander out into the sunlight to test our courage in a stab at the “new normal” (a perfect example of willful amnesia), cameras are recording a strange collection of conflicting messages, as both hope and haunting walk our streets hand-in-hand. We are either in the throes of recovery, or a colossal poker bluff with fate, or both, depending on who you ask, and anyone attempting to record what’s happening out there will see manifestations of relief, anxiety, relaxation, and readiness. We are in a unique transition phase, one that could result in both freedom and defeat. And the pictures, as always, will reflect that ambivalence.

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As I mentioned in the post previous to this one, I have just spent the 2021 Fourth of July weekend reinserting myself into the flow of life in Los Angeles for the first time in sixteen months. The sensation was both reassuring and tentative. Masks are not everywhere, but they are in greater evidence in a city that was so battle-scarred by the pandemic than in the foolhardy desert domains of Arizona. People are mixing, partying, eating, laughing, even as they walk across worn “six feet” signs that remind them that, just because the big bombs have stopped falling, the war isn’t over. It’s confusing, but in an exhilarating, jump-out-of-the-plane kind of way. We could fall to our death, but, hey, on the other hand, how about that view?

Willful Amnesia is seen in a camera’s quick flashes, alternating with the latent fears that are still very much a part of our daily navigations. The above image seems to be All About The Party, but equally true pictures of the masked and homeless lie just inches away. Pivot to the left, and the energy says resurrection. Pivot to the left, and it’s Anxiety On Parade. Both kinds of photographs are true, at least until we can replace our willful amnesia with the real, healing variety.

BALANCING ACT

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By MICHAEL PERKINS

THIS WEEKEND MARKS MY FIRST ENTRY INTO LOS ANGELES since February of 2020, or just before the beginning of The Long Dark Night. The city has been a kind of third home to us for nearly twenty years, with both family and friends helping us make the City of Angels a very comfortable fit. Then, as happened all over the world, the familiar became the fraught….as a town that is always ready for its closeup saw more images of tragedy than of tinsel. I have counted the days until I could walk its streets again with nothing more serious on my mind than finding Bing Crosby’s star on the Walk of Fame.

As you read this, I will have spent the Fourth of July weekend trying to, well, feel free, which is still a tricky feat for many of us. We aren’t really done with all this horror, and we pray that our first halting steps back into the sunlight won’t scorch us. Additionally, phrases like “back to normal” will continue to ring hollow for many of us, for……who knows how long?

And yet we venture out. And the pictures that result from those uneasy explorations will have their own special signature. As I have begun packing for the trip this morning, I also spent some time leafing through some of the last images I shot last year, looking for something that could symbolize what we’ve all given up, what we’ve all learned to do to navigate the World After. Oddly, the picture that spoke to me the most has nothing to do with what was about to happen.

On a normal day in a city that boasts amazing museums and galleries, this lad’s wobbly, but essentially risk-free trek across a small hunk of open space, protected by a safety net, now suggests something different about our own uncertain steps back toward Business As Usual. On one hand, we share his thrill: that little bit of hazard quickens the blood and keens the senses, after all. But in a larger sense, we are very much working without a net, learning to weigh each step with care and caution, trying to forget that we’re on a tightwire. So, yeah, I took general shots all over Los Angeles during my last stay there. But this one is both the stuff of dreams and nightmares, and I share it here as a simple metaphor.

Perhaps the net is underneath us all at last. Perhaps not. But from Marco Polo to Lindbergh to Armstrong, explorers press on even where there be monsters. Cities are merely collections of individual journeys, after all. We all crowd together even as our personal paths set us apart. And, as always, images will be first seen, then made.

Safe travel to us all.

“Cal-i-for-nia, here I come….”

BURNERS

By MICHAEL PERKINS

“You’re taking your camera with you? TODAY?”

WHEN PHOTOGRAPHERS SPEAK OF A “LEARNING CURVE” for either techniques or gear, they’re actually talking about the process in which you make a whole lot of bad pictures on your way to good ones. Mastery is about of lot of things, but it’s mainly about lousing things up for a good long while and using the negative feedback to figure out what to do right by doing a whole lot of things wrong first.

The reasonable goal, therefore, in trying to get to the next level with your photography, is to do any and everything to speed up that curve…. to, in effect, tunnel toward your goal by getting all those transitionally wrong pictures past you. Being impatient in this regard, I have developed the habit of taking along whatever camera I’m currently trying to tame at every available opportunity, especially if there will be “nothing worth photographing”, whatever that means. I call such outings “burner days”, as I have no expectation whatever of producing any keepers, but am merely making myself shoot enough with the gear in question so that mental and muscle memory are built up more quickly, leaving me readier at an earlier stage to do something of consequence when it really matters.

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The hungry woodpecker seen here was the product of a burner day, as I figured that a June morning in Arizona was too hot for any birds to venture out. I was wrong, and I took home a little miracle, not because I’m amazing, but because I was available.

Shooters who have never known any other realm than digital are already a little mentally ahead in the burner game, in that they are already accustomed to quickly firing off and evaluating lots of blown shots on their way to the final product. Those trained inititally in film were hemmed in by how many shots they could financially afford to attempt; moreover, the time-line of their failures was also drawn out by the unavoidable waiting period between snapping and processing. Now everyone can afford to fail, a lot, very quickly, and that is a good thing. The break-in period for any approach or equipment in greatly foreshortened in the digital era, with the added plus that many shots that might have been total flops in analog days can now be instantly re-calculated and reshot in the field, and possibly saved. An amazing luxury.

And so, there is real educational value in shooting your little fingers off at every opportunity. First, there’s little cost in either time or cash in trying everything you can think of. Secondly, since no one knows for sure that there’s literally “nothing to shoot” when they head out on a given morning, the element of surprise is constantly in effect. Many days you will bring home both blown exposures and technically perfect shots that are devoid of impact. But each one of those misses builds the habits that eventually will produce a higher harvest of hits. Simply, you can’t be sure that the picture of your life won’t jump into your lap even under the most unpromising scenarios. Better to be present to at least make the attempt, because even the bad pictures are stepping stones to the miraculous ones.

AND NOW, THIS WORD…

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By MICHAEL PERKINS

WITHOUT ANY CONCRETE EVIDENCE, I’m willing to bet that the most common name for a photograph, globally, is the simple word “untitled”. And I’m pretty okay with that, truly. Titles are an attempt to identify, classify, or qualify the image to which it’s attached. And I wonder, in the majority of cases, if that’s even important.

One of the first reasons to title or caption photos was to train the first generation of photo observers how to decipher the contents of a picture, or, in the merely journalistic, record-making sense, to anchor the image to crucial content. The first pictures of the Great Pyramids originally needed the context, for most people, of telling you what you were seeing, where it could be found, a little history, etc. Then, for about a century, photos printed in the emerging print media used verbiage as a guide to the picture-as-illustration. The image only existed to make the content more comprehensible or concise.

But now, as photographs become more of a purely visual experience, not tied to a specific explanation or reference point in the viewer’s eye, do titles and captions add to their impact? If a photo is meant to engage the senses on a truly instinctual level, do they, like a verbal narrative, have to be “about” anything at all? Certainly many images are created to tell an A-to-B-C linear story, but, unless they are in service of a story, do we really need words to tell us what we are seeing, or what it ought to be named, or what it has set out to accomplish? Does a title render anything valuable to a photograph?

Either an image has impact, that is, makes a connection with its audiences, or it does not. Spinning sentences about how it was taken, what it’s supposed to show, what you should think about it….all these can be said to be excuses for the picture not having effectively made that connection. And yet, so many photo sharing sites are rife with what can only be termed explanations of pictures, when, in a visual medium, that job should fall to the photograph alone.

Museums (often the worst possible people to entrust art to) are famous for captioning their exhibits into submission, with weary essays of what you’re seeing and what you are supposed think about it tugging many soaring pictures earthward. Some of the most talented curators in the world, learned people with an eye for excellence, often choose images that are wonderfully compelling and then litter them with captions so ponderously pretentious that the viewer is tempted to think he is not intelligent enough to like the images without being “educated”. This subverts what makes photographs eloquent, because it tells us not to trust what we feel, but rather what the prevailing expert consensus is. It’s nonsense. And it’s wrong.

So call your image “Abstruse #7” or “Bellicose Eclipse” or just plain “untitled”, but don’t allow yourself to try to show in words what the photos didn’t show emotionally. Be a photographer or be a clever writer, but be one of those things all the way. And if you don’t want to explain anything, don’t. A photograph isn’t justified because of its reference to anything else. Like all art, it just is. Trust your vision. Show the lily…just don’t gild it.

THE GREAT GIFT OF NOT UN-SEEING

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I HAVE THANKED MY WIFE SEVERAL TIMES IN RECENT YEARS for the fact that, for the first time in my life, I am consistently, consciously aware of birdsong. This is no small thing, developing an acuity for something which has been all around me, largely undetected, for my entire existence, and which, at this late point, is suddenly, miraculously obvious to me all the time. Of course we didn’t just move our house to where the most birds are, nor did Marian suddenly give them a power that the Creator somehow overlooked. Instead, she has facilitated a change in me, something I am not even consistently to do for myself. And that’s huge.

And, as all things will, this stands as yet another metaphor for photography.

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Training the eye to see the world beyond the fundamentals is the most important element in making an image, far outranking any merely technical consideration. Once you learn to see critically, curiously, your pictures, and the process of making them, operate on a completely different level, with even your “imperfect” shots taking on a distinct character. Often, when someone witnesses something horrible, they remark that they “can’t un-see” the  event in question. However, vision in photography makes that condition a blessing. Shooting thousands of images over years broadens the scope of how you evaluate what you see, as well as how you plan based on that knowledge. You become a better and better shooter the more you can’t “un-see” the world.

Shooting happens faster and easier once you’ve cultivated the habit of seeing better, because, even in rushed or difficult conditions, you already have a basic pre-conception of what you want your pictures to be. You develop a mental sketchpad of sorts, placing you steps ahead in bending the performance of the camera to your will. That’s not a guarantee that you’ll always get what you went for, but it is a guarantee that you’ll know more clearly what you’re after, and that moves you closer to getting it. The image seen above is an example of my eye having evolved to a certain level at a certain point in time, and thus being able to convert some of my perception into a picture. I could not have made the same picture the same way ten years before, and, ten years hence, I will not make the same choices I made here.

Birdsong existed before I learned how to listen for it. Likewise, the things revealed in your best pictures is not composed of things you invented, just things you learned how to see. More precisely, it’s a smorgasbord of things you no longer can un-see. And the better your own vision, the better the chance that you’ll convey something amazing to your camera.

THE SACRAMENTALS

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By MICHAEL PERKINS

WHENEVER YOU MAKE A PHOTOGRAPH, you set several things in force at the same time, as if you were generating, in addition to the “sun” or central subject of your image, a rotating solar system of lesser planets, or the other information that hitches a ride along with the main idea of the shot. This is especially true of the memory trove that accompanies our most personal photographs. We think we’re just snapping someone we love: as it turns out, we’re also extending an invitation to their entire surrounding reality as well.

This image of my father in 1964, when he was 35, was rescued from an old Kodachrome slide to accompany a Facebook appreciation of the Old Gunfighter for this year’s Father’s Day. The mission was simple…to summon a few chuckles and tears as he begins his 94th year on the planet. That’s really all I was going for when I resurrected the shot.

But other things, keen, clear, important memories accompany and contextualize him as well, even in a so-called “simple” snapshot. In the Catholic Church these things are called “sacramentals“. They are not sacraments in themselves, but the additional sensations that are forever linked to them: candles: the smell of incense: the kind of noise a wooden pew makes when you first creak into your seat: and so on. In this shot, there are many such sacramentals, many little mental barnacles clinging to the bottom of the photo’s main hull.

First, there are the memories connected to the space itself, which was our backyard at 1752 Marston Road, an address that accounts for twelve years of my young life. The house was wood, painted yellow, which means this picture was taken before it became clad in white aluminum siding, which never felt quite as good, or solid, to my fingers as, well, wood. In a time when people rhapsodize about houses with picket fences, we literally had one, and the section just over Dad’s right shoulder was, in his earliest days as an amateur rose planter, his first trellis. There is the metal awning over the side entrance of our neighbor’s house, which was how my mother entered the place to take morning coffee with the Irish lady who owned it and her adopted Puerto Rican baby boy. And over Dad’s left shoulder is The Tree, an immense maple that belonged to the family four doors down, a supertree too big to climb, so massive that the developers who laid out our tract of homes didn’t even try to yank it out, as they had nearly every other stick of vegetation in the area, a titanic ship’s mast of a tree that could be seen from every vantage point in the neighborhood, like a sign that you were returning to safe harbor.

And with this list I am just getting started. And that’s before I consider how strong, how young, how handsome my father was. I clearly remember being ridden around on those shoulders. He gave me a view that I, in turn, tried to impart to my own children, figuratively if not literally. It was, and remains, quite a ride. The one thing this picture does not reveal is who the person behind the viewfinder of our old Kodak 828 Pony was, although I assume it was my mother, as mere children were not entrusted to operate A Real Camera at that time. But that’s a mystery for another day. In the meantime, I hope you will be spending your Father’s Day smothered in warm echoes. And that when a picture emotionally takes you to church, the sacramentals ring forth as musically as a solemn High Mass.

GO WES, YOUNG MAN

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By MICHAEL PERKINS

IF IMITATION IS THE SINCEREST FORM OF FLATTERY, then film director Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Moonrise Kingdom, Fabulous Mr.Fox) must be blushing about five layers deep. His unique system of composition, even more than his overall cinematic style or subject matter, is currently the jumping-off point for a bumper crop of homages, parodies, websites and books, all celebrating the quirky look of the arcane locales he uses to stage his surreal and sweet comedies. As a result, there is now a recognizable signature image, a “Wes Anderson-like” shot, that occupies one of the more enjoyable wings in the Photo-Art gallery.

Anderson manipulates the real to appear unreal, by breaking certain accepted rules of composition, or, to be more precise, asking why they were accepted in the first place. For example, it’s typical for shooters to frame an object so that the illusion of depth is created…either by leading lines, side-angles, and off-center location in the frame. Wes frequently shoots what has been called flat space….that is, a head-on view of an object or scene (as in the above frame from The Grand Budapest Hotel) that is so nailed to the rear plane of the image that it could have been a 2-d poster pasted to a wall. There is no attempt to make the shot look “deep”, or to invite you eye inside it. Then there is the accepted no-no of placing the subject dead center in the frame, even allowing dead or open space around it. This isolates the subject, making it appear apart, alien, not of this world. Perfectly centered pictures of places with an obsessive amount of symmetrical detail (windows, ornamentation) are supposed to be boring, say all our teachers…except when they actually become hypnotic.

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Anderson seeks the strange in his subject matter, design-wide and otherwise, and then amps up that strangeness with a saturation of primary colors and odd pastels. He makes real places look like table-top models (which he sometimes uses) and vice-versa. This assembly of techniques make his locales fairly scream “once upon a time” and, beyond his own work, have sparked admirers and imitators to see things in the same way, so that a Google search of “Wes Anderson look” yields thousands of pictures that he himself never actually made, such as my own shot of an old information booth at Los Angeles’ Union Station, seen above.

Old Hollywood dictated that directors have no discernible style or signature, while recent filmmakers insist on the dead opposite. In recent years, so many people were shooting their own “Wes Anderson” images that an entire Instagram feed, AccidentlyWesAnderson, began to attract a global fan base, recently resulting in Wally Koval’s sumptuous coffee-table book of the same name, a sampling of the best pictures from the feed, accompanied by detailed essays on locales new and old around the world that resemble the surrealistic perfection of Anderson’s own images. It’s art-imitating-life-imitating-art-imitating…?

Are all these images true tributes, artsy rip-offs, or an admission that photographic rules are meant to be broken? Can we even make pictures that are non-ironic or free of outside influence? Should we worry about it? While we sort all of that out, it’s just fun to try on Wes’ skin and walk around in it. Whatever we wind up with in our own work will, at least, come as a consequence of our observing, and questioning “how you’re supposed to do it.” Because in photography, tools matter less than what those tools eventually build.

ROCK STEADY

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I MAKE NO SECRET OF THE FACT that I would thunderously applaud the total disappearance of tripods from everyday photography. Beyond the pure pain, to both back and neck, created by an abundance of camera luggage, I feel that (a) pods utterly short-circuit the concept of spontaneity in the making of pictures and (b) two centuries-and-change is more than enough time for mankind to have perfected the light sensitivity of recording media (film, sensors, etc.) or to have invented the ideal stabilization system for cameras themselves.

And while there have been amazing advancements in both A and B ), there will still, perhaps always, be at least a few cases when a handheld shot will forever be denied us. And I freely admit that there are those for whom, for one physical reason or another, the pod is an absolute necessity, and I certainly do not mean to seem unkind in wishing that that was not so. Trying to train oneself to remain rock steady when shooting handheld is a very personal matter, and results vary wildly. I have known people who are solid enough to qualify as human tripods themselves, stolid folks who could probably nail a sharp image in the middle of a tsunami, while there are others who labor mightily in all but the most ideal conditions. A blessing upon both houses.

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I’ve tried many exercises to brace the camera against my body, along with experiments in breath control, changes in ISO for faster exposures….you name it, I’ve given it a go. I’ve managed to eliminate the tripod for many shots that used to absolutely require it, such as super-close macros, but, even there, I occasionally have to drag the three-legged beast out of the closet for one last curtain call. Where I’ve seen the most frustration is with so-called “super-zooms” cameras, with some models already actively working against the shooter, either by jacking up the ISO to compensate for the loss in light at super-zoom range, increasing digital noise, or just having inadequate stabilization when the telephoto range is beyond 400mm, which plays hell with resolution, as seen with the cactus wren above.

Such circumstances would seem to argue for the fixed position that a pod offers, but here again, we get back to the idea of spontaneity and flexibility, crucial considerations when your subject is a bird of other wildlife. Shooting something stationary at a distance actually benefits from the use of the pod, whereas tracking a living creature makes it virtually useless. The answer to the problem still seems to exist in the forward-thinking tech that is forever evolving: that is, make all lenses perform better under low-light conditions, and evolve stabilization to the point where even a drunk with the DTs can hold the shot steadily enough for nearly any situation. The tripod is a relic of the 1800’s. It belongs in a museum, not in a kit bag.

SWEET CLAUSTROPHOBIA

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ENOUGH WITH THE FLOWERS.

Give the birds a rest. Put the quiet trails and placid sunsets on pause.

I want my skyscrapers back.

Yes, I’ve dutifully done my photographic confinement therapy, like everyone else whose worlds have shrunk during the Great Hibernation. I’ve lovingly lingered over the natural world, embraced the tiny universes revealed by my macro lenses and close-up filters. I’ve properly marveled at the wonder of simple things, patiently revealed in the quiet composure of a more inward kind of photo-therapy.

It was needful. It was even helpful. Hell, on a few days, it was essential. But instead of steady, slow inspirations into the deepest reaches of my lungs, I now long for shallow, quick breaths, terse inhalations of monoxide, stolen as I dash across a crowded crosswalk. I want to dodge things. I want to run for a train. I need to see the infinite collision of brick, stone, and steel textures all fighting for my visual attention in a mad crush.

I want to hear noise.

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I can make myself comfortable, even modestly eloquent, shooting the splendors of the natural world. God knows we have placed too many barriers of estrangement from our inheritance in field and flower. But I have known, since I was a child, that my soul synched perfectly to the unnatural world, the arbitrary creation of we wicked, weak bipeds, with an affection that is every bit the equal to that which I feel for a tree or a blossom.

I see the same geometry and design in our crude imitations of nature as in the contours of the rose or the patterns within a cactus flower, and I’m not embarrassed to say that the spires, arches, bridges and alleyways that map our densest interactions give me an electric thrill. I should also add that I am not typical within my family, where there are far more Thoreaus, all centered on their respective Waldens, than there are Whitmans, who see glory in even  the failed strivings of the urban experiment. I take comfort in my sweet claustrophobia, and I make no apology for the fact that my photography breathes its fullest in cities.

There were, of course, millions for whom, during the Horror, cities were a cruel prison, and I absolutely get that. As the Eagles said, we are all just prisoners of our own device. Artists can create a heaven or hell in any setting, as witness the miraculous faith of prisoner poets or the inventive tinkering of a Robinson Crusoe. Confinement is largely a matter of geography or physical constraint, but, as we have all spent a long year discovering, it can be overcome by a refusal of the mind to remain locked into a particular place.

Still.

I have not yet completed my slow trip back to the hunting grounds where my cameras talk loudest to me. Like the start of our communal imprisonment, it will come in layers, in a million tiny shards of re-discovery. But it will come. My cities will be restored to me. My flowers and birds and bugs will always be celebrated as the protectors of my sanity, of the need to take my art inward from time to time. But right now, I need to get out on the streets, and see what’s up.

MONUMENTS TO MOMENPOPS

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By MICHAEL PERKINS

LIFE DURING PLAGUE-TIME has cut like a scythe through both the wheat and the chaff in the global economy, taking down both independent and chain-owned businesses alike, leveling enterprises that, in some cases, took generations to build. And in so doing, they have, in an instant, re-sculpted the visual contours of the world. In simple terms, the virus has changed what we see in daily life, if by no more sophisticated means than erasing the Cafe Down The Block, the Restaurant Where We Got Engaged, or the Donut Place I Stopped At Every Morning For Thirty Years.

Any business failure affects people, certainly, whether the doors close on a mega-chain or a mom-and-pop, but when independent businesses are shuttered, something else dies with them: the personal visual signature of their displays, trademarks, and original art….the home-made signs or bizarre architecture that separated them from the companies that have 200 locations nationwide. Take away one of fifteen Appleby’s in a city and the cultural loss is manageable. Take down a single local hang-out, and you’ve changed, along with the look of the area, its rhythms and rituals.

It’s too early to say what the most valuable photographs of this period will be over time, or what the word “valuable” even means to you personally. But just as we now look at the signage and storefronts of the ’30’s or ’50’s with a certain disbelief that such a world could have even existed, we will surely see a pattern of “befores” and “afters” from this time, with some of the images from the period charting who were were and what was lost as a result of the Grief Tsunami. Already, it’s possible to sort out images of places and things into a general “was” and “is”, a sensation which will only intensify in the years to come. If we’re careful, the passage of many of these places will be marked with sensitive pictures, or even casual snaps. The important thing, as always, is to sense what’s in the process of being taken away, and to designate some of it as worth preserving…if only in a series of glowing pixels.

VERITIES AND VARIABLES

By MICHAEL PERKINS 

FIRST OFF, LET’S AGREE ON ONE THING: photographs are not “the truth”. Well, at least not what we think we mean by truth. Maybe we use the “reality” of a captured image as a mere point of departure, the place we start off from, on the way to…well, that’s up to the artist, innit? What I’m trying to say here is that merely snapping a picture doesn’t mean that you’ve told the absolute truth about what your lens was pointing toward. Only the bones of truth…a structure on which to drape the rest, through interpretation, and the shared experience of inviting other eyes into the discussion. 

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Some of our inherited thinking about the veracity of a photo (“the camera doesn’t lie”) is that it is produced by a machine, a device inserted between our vision and the finished product, a mechanism that we associate with reproduction. After all the device measures light; it is indifferent, just as a seismograph or a lie detector would be. Only it isn’t. We humans are interacting with that “recording” function at every turn, just as personally as the painter measures and controls strokes of a brush. And then there’s the consideration of time. We don’t capture all of life in our box, just a stolen sliver of it, which guarantees that the sample, having been yanked out of its original context, is tainted from the start.

Even the best picture, then, comes out compromised, depending on how it was taken, and by whom. Clicking a shutter may be a means of producing something thought provoking, even profound, but it is nothing as simple as capturing the truth. As illustration: it’s easy to identify all the contributing elements of the above image….light, shadow, color, water textures, solid objects…but it was only possible to combine them all into the result you see here for a single moment. Someone else, working with the very same elements just a second later, would likely produce vastly different results. And yet, both of us are “right”.

Thinking of photographs as truth is tricky business. Consider this quote from photographer Giles Duley, who has garnered some distinction of late as what I call a camera-oriented journalist:

“I don’t believe there’s such a thing as ‘truth’ in photography. As soon as I walk in a room and point a camera at you, I’ve already ruled out the rest of the people. As soon as I press the shutter on that second, I’ve ruled out the rest of the day. There is only honesty….”

A photograph is something used to illustrate a point of view. It’s not the only point of view to be had, and so it can’t be the absolute “truth” for everyone. But that’s the beauty of it, the fascinatingly infinite variety of “my truths” to be had in the artistic realm. This is not science. Science is different. You can’t present your “version” of gravity, or photosynthesis, or the speed of light. They just are. Art happens in the realm of “might be” or “could be”, and our photographs are, at their best, suppositions, suggestions. This picture might be true, and it might not, and so let the debate begin. And that is what makes the creation of image an art. Because it’s yours, and, with luck, it might be ours, and the dialogue that decides that is, well, everything.  

DRILLING DOWN TO IT

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ONE OF THE MANY ONLINE PHOTO CONSIGNMENT SITES, which, of course, make lots of money by buying what shooters no longer love, claims, in its welcome page, that “research (?) shows that nearly half of U.S. photographers have cameras or lenses that they haven’t used in two years.” As evidence, this is both unprovable and un-unproveable. It may be total bushwah, and it may also be God’s truth. But for many people who’ve been shooting for a while, it kinda sorta feels….reasonable.

What would be more interesting to me, however, in terms of specious claims about what equipment we do or don’t use, would be a breakout (pie chart? bar chart? Venn diagram?) of which percentage of even our most favorite cameras we never, ever use, for anything. It’s not a stunning revelation that cameras are larded up with a lot of techo-fat, features upon features, menus upon menus of stuff that sounds wonderful in the brochures but doesn’t serve our most repeated or desired functions. The fact is that lots of gear can place many layers and barriers between what we see and how we set about to trap our vision in the box. We can get so besotted with the setting-up phase, the romantic dance of making a technically flawless picture, that we get sidetracked from how simple a process it really is….or should be.

Aperture. Shutter Speed. ISO. Lather, rinse repeat. Change one part of the triangle and the other two will be changed as well. That’s it. Class dismissed. Now get out of here and go make pictures.

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Is this image made on a cheap point-and-shoot? Or a $2,000 pro tool? A Leica or an iPhone? Analog or digital? Can it, in fact, have been produced equally well by all of those, if the photographer applies vision and care?

Manufacturers drag us from one model camera to another, laying in just enough innovation or novelty to render our current equipment “obsolete” and to artificially engineer desire for the latest thing. I spent a career in mass media and can attest to how effective this approach is. It sells a crap-ton of cameras, as well as cars, apparel, audio gear, and breakfast cereal. But for photographic purposes, it can actually weigh a shooter down, delay the moment of decision, or, worst of all, create the belief that the other guy’s camera, being more advanced than our own, guarantees said other guy better pictures. And, since I have already used “bushwah” once in this tract,  I’ll now characterize this belief as “malarkey”.

The mechanics of making an image are inherently as consistent as they are simple, and, if there was a magical evidentiary graph to show how much of our cameras we actually use, it is my contention that the list of most frequent operations would be small, and would not include the majority of the tools and add-ons built into our equipment. That is why, along with other reasons, I still occasionally shoot film in, completely mechanical cameras….to force myself to think in very simple rules of engagement and to find the pictures that any camera, simple or complicated, can produce. And while there will be times that I miss some of the lovely extras that now crowd our devices, I can always re-learn the habit of shooting without them, drilling down to the bedrock of what makes a picture work. And if, as the consignment sites claim, “nearly half” of us have cameras or lenses that we don’t use, perhaps we need to ask ourselves why that is.

SHAPER #1

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By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE WORD “PHOTOGRAPHY” OFTEN SUGGESTS THE IDEA OF MERELY RECORDING SOMETHING, of using a machine to arrest time in its flight and imprison it forever. That, to me suggests a very passive act, that of merely opening the shutter and harvesting whatever comes along, much in the way one might cast a fishing net. You might haul in a marlin, but you will also snag the occasional boot.

So, for me, the term photography is often misinterpreted, as if the shooter has little choice in the process, a concept I absolutely reject. The word itself basically translates as “writing with light”, and, in that interpretation, the act of making a picture is an active one, with light not merely being a component but the prime determinant, Shaper #1 in that process. George Eastman himself said it first, and best:

Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.

So now, we have an art form, because, in this mindset, one can begin with accidents and end up with mastery, merely by using light purposefully and with a kind of earnest literacy.

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The first thing the study of light teaches is how fleeting its effects are. Many people who have shot the Grand Canyon have experienced the incredible minute-to-minute changes in the gorge as shadows shift, dance and crawl across the terrain. Many others, working in the transient light of shifting weather patterns, or the sudden remapping of illumination at sunrise or sunset, know the importance of getting the shot the very moment it presents itself, all delays changing your results measurably, even drastically.

These two images of Vancouver’s glorious Marine building, one of the most amazing examples of Art Deco in North America, were taken just twenty-nine minutes apart from each other. The earlier shot, taken at about 10:45 in the morning, presents the elaborate entrance with a kind of even, flat value, while the second shot is a crazy quilt of a million tiny bounces and reflections, as well as a dramatic increase in contrast. I was merely lucky in being able to get two very different impressions of the same building, even though a clearer knowledge of the local light conditions in the area might have allowed me to create two greatly more nuanced pictures. As it is, I got an object lesson on how to do things better the next time, and clear illustration that Eastman was right. Know the light, Shaper #1 in a picture, for all you are worth, and you have the biggest riddle solved.

LADLING IT ON

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By MICHAEL PERKINS

IN THE PRACTICE OF PHOTOGRAPHY, it’s often difficult to know when a simple composition will serve as the best overall tool for an effective narrative. We all heard something from our ninth-grade science teacher about the shortest distance between two points being a straight line, and some of that directness, expressed as an image that gets to the point without needless visual distractions or detours, certainly applies to some of our best work.

But then again…

Some pictures certainly suffer from an overabundance of detail. The eye can get lost on its way to the main point of the photograph; competing components of equal appeal can wrestle each other for dominance in a scene; and, of course, excessive clutter can defuse a photo’s impact altogether. Imagine a large Where’s Waldo? panorama in which, to your frustration, you just never manage to find Waldo at all.

That said, there are subjects which are busy, busy, busy, but which might actually lose their power if you tried to tidy them up or streamline them. Consider the above shot of a hallway inside the Library of Congress. Here is a place where no one even considered the minimalist credo that “less is more”. Indeed, this magnificent building is about majesty, power, prestige, officialdom, if you will. It means to shout loud and proud. It is an expression of an empire, an edifice to the grandeur of the ideas contained within its walls. Simple and spare just won’t cut it for such a place, and a photograph taken of it needs to respect that.

Even in places that boast this level of ornamentation, however, you can take small steps to prevent your viewer’s eye from being overwhelmed. An even, bright exposure, for example, with nothing lurking in shadows to trick your viewer into going on a scavenger hunt; sharp focus from front to back to allow all the detail to be prominently displayed; and the use of whatever leading lines might be in the structure, to keep the eye moving in as close to a single direction as possible, emphasizing depth and scale.

The old “keep it simple, stupid” rule does, indeed serve photographers well in scads of cases. But for those few occasions where busier is better, go full-tilt boogie and really ladle it on. The knack of knowing when to say “how much” and when to say “too much” is some of the best editorial education you can ever treat yourself to.

DANCING WITH A STRANGER

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I’VE BEEN ORGANIZING A GIFT FOR MY SON’S FORTIETH BIRTHDAY, which is an overview of a specific photographic theme spanning the last ten years. A decade is a nice round figure, a handy unit of time for evaluating one’s evolution in various enterprises, and so the exercise has led me to go back the same stretch across my online image postings, but, instead of looking at the entire span of ten years, I became obsessed with throwing out the clutter from exactly ten years ago. I’d like to say it was a pleasant trip down memory lane, but, in fact, I’ve done most of it with one eye closed, all the better to minimize my cringing.

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It’s more than sobering to look at the stuff you felt happy enough about to throw onto the interweb just a decade ago, almost like trying to pull off an intimate dance with a total stranger, and not a very good looking one at that. I am not trying to lead the world championship in false modesty when I say that the old delete button was looking quite shopworn when the job was done, and, if anything, I feel that the large pile of photographic detritus at my feet represents me being generous in too many cases where my sentiment overrode my sense.

You are, of course, a little bit alienated from your old self every new time you pick up a camera. Get enough distance between yourself and what you once thought was your “good stuff” and the contrast can knock you off your pins. Chances are, the You of Today sees composition, narrative, exposure and subject matter with a completely different set of priorities than the You of Yesteryear. That is, if you’re lucky. If you still regard your work of ten years ago as “all killer, no filler”, you may have spent the last decade walking in circles. Or you may be the greatest genius in the history of photography, in which case I’d like to become the local chapter president of your fan club.

Me, I’m pledging to re-edit my portfolio with a lot more regularity in the future. It may not be much more pleasant, but I’d rather face several dozens of my biggest misses at a  time than legions of the suckers. In the meantime, I have that gift book to finish, and I’d better hurry up about it. If I think about it too long, I might just reduce the tome to a pamphlet and send my kid a coupon for a Happy Meal.

FAB FOR THE TIMES

By MICHAEL PERKINS

OUR STORY BEGAN as I was recently rifling through early images of the Beatles, and marveling at the material objects the Fab Four spent some of their First Real Money on, like, as with many of us, so-called “serious” cameras. 

Over the history of camera design there have been two distinct Halls of Fame, one being a “who done it first” roster of innovators and the other being more of a “who wore it best” list of brands that had the greatest success and/or reputation connected with those breakthroughs. Many camera makers both introduce and adapt, and some brands, even if they come late to someone else’s refinement, capitalize on them better than even its originators. And so it goes. 

One company that sparked true innovation at its peak but saw its tech eventually adapted by names that eventually eclipsed it was Pentax, now known as a mere phantom shell brand under Ricoh but once a verrrry key player in camera design. Founded in Tokyo in 1919, Pentax began as a maker of lenses for eyeglasses and soon thereafter adapted its polishing and coating techniques to make entry into the camera lens field. By the early 1960’s, the 35mm camera had become universal as an amateur tool, but many things remained to be done for it to appeal to aspiring pros as well. Two such needs, for true through-the-lens focusing and simplified light metering, was being met by a few forward-thinking makers, and, among these, Pentax was the first to create a fully practical SLR, years ahead of Canon, Nikon and other contenders. 

And so enter the Pentax Spotmatic, sporting a film advance lever (faster and easier than most company’s advance knobs), completely in-body metering function, compatibility with all M42 screw-mount lenses (offering a lot of choices across competing manufacturers) and a sleek, lightweight body. And here is where we, if you will, Meet The Beatles. The Fab Four, on their first American tour in 1964, were still in the habit of doing nearly everything as a group, and so Paul, George and Ringo all purchased new Asahi Pentax Spotmatics as their “real” cameras as they made their way across the states. Ringo in particular seems to have taken to the snapping hobby especially well, taking advantage of the hours the band spent sequestered in hotel rooms or sheltering away from their manic public by taking tons of candids that have recently come to light in special exhibitions and in the 2017 book Photograph. Most of the previously unpublished images were shot on Ringo’s Pentax. 

The Spotmatic and its progeny proved to be an affordable, easily-operated workhorse within the Pentax stable for years to come, even as the company itself saw its innovations co-opted and perfected by other brands. Today, like many once-mighty names that have been purchased, re-purchased or hollowed out by new parent companies, this once-major player in the design sweepstakes deserves a hallowed place among those who made the creation of images easier, faster, and more reliable. Analog or digital, all design rises or falls on how it removes obstacles between the envisioning and the execution of an idea, as the world asks but one thing of its most beloved cameras:

“Please please me..”. 

ZOOMACRO

By MICHAEL PERKINS

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THE LONGER ONE IS INVOLVED IN PHOTOGRAPHY, the greater the temptation is to streamline one’s “quantitative” approach to equipment….specifically, how much of it we need with us at any one time. We’ve all seen ( have often been) the folks who decide to lug along multiple camera bodies, lots of lenses, and assorted support devices and toys, and, for many of these people, that is a workable approach to doing good work. Others decide, over time, that they want less gear that does more. I have lived in Camp One, and I prefer life in Camp Two. I try to decide, before heading out, which camera/lens combo will give me most of what I want in most situations. That means leaving some stuff back at the house and maximizing the flexibility of what you have at hand, or, as the modified stock car racers term it, “run what you brung”.

In recent years, the increased number of wildlife shoots in which I tag along has more or less dictated the use of a telephoto of some kind. However, when the birds and beasts decide to sleep in, I love to default to close work with flowers or other nature subjects. That means trying to make the zoom do the work of a macro lens, since I don’t have a true macro with me at the moment. And, happily, it turns out that I can do about 90% of what I want from a macro with a telephoto anyway.

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The minimum focal distance of a zoom dictates that you stand fairly far away from your target (say a flower), or else your autofocus will just whirr and dither, and so the first thing you have to do is back away. It’s not uncommon to stand fifteen or more feet from your subject before zooming in. Of course, at maximum zoom, your choice of apertures may be more limited, meaning you can’t open up wider than about f/4. This, in turn, means that you may not be as able to isolate a sharp foreground object from its softer background clutter as neatly as a macro would allow you to at, say, f/2 or wider. What I do in a case like this is actually underexpose a bit by shooting at a fast shutter speed, trying to position the subject in direct light and letting everything behind it roll off into darkness. It’s crude but easy.

A caveat: true macros are extremely precise instruments, and, in making a zoom do macro-like work, you shouldn’t expect to nail the same superfine detail as a lens dedicated solely to the task. That means you’ll see the delicate patterns on a butterfly’s wings, but you won’t be able to count the dots in his eyes. Still, in comparing the two images here, one a true macro and the other a “zoomacro”, many might concede that they both generally bring home the bacon (spoiler alert: the top photo is the genuine macro). Bottom line: it is easy to force a telephoto to perform this kind of double duty, making your shooting less complicated and cumbrous and producing fairly consistent results.

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