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HISTORY TAUGHT BY LIGHTNING

2011: The first of the reborn World Trade Center towers climbs into the sky in lower Manhattan.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ALONG WITH EVERYONE ELSE FROZEN IN PLACE BY 2020’s GREAT HIBERNATION, I’ve found myself riffing through my video collection in search of long-form diversion. In recent weeks, as New York struggled to emerge from the first massive crush of horror borne by the virus tragedy, I was seeking a kind of Manhattan-flavored comfort food, and unearthed my old copy of Ric (brother of Ken) Burns’ epic documentary on the history of the island from the time of the Dutch settlers to the final days of 1999. After 9/11, feeling that something incredibly important had been left unsaid, Ric went back into production on an eighth and final chapter,The Center Of The World, which told the detailed history of the specific lower Manhattan neighborhoods of “Ground Zero” as they existed before the attack, and concluding with a post-script on what was, at the time, the first stirrings of rebirth at the site. Re-watching this for the first time in years sent me into an archive of another kind: my own still images from roughly the same time frame.

Marian and I made our first pilgrimage to the site in 2011, right after access was opened to the memorial pools that were fashioned from the remains of the foundations of the twin towers of the original World Trade Center. The first replacement structure was not completely clad in glass at that time (see left), and entry to the area was by means of a ton of secured cyclone fencing and very long lines. Signs promised a yet-to-be-built memorial. Almost everything else in the rebirthing of the site was likewise still on the drawing board. The empty space across the street from the old 90 Church Street post office (which is the beige building in the middle of the lower image) would eventually become the great winged Oculus, the new entry point for the rebuilt PATH terminal and underground connector to various new business and retail complexes, themselves also under construction at the time. Barely ten years after a searing scar had been burned into the Manhattan streets and hearts, resurrection was already well under way. That’s New York, a city which would have been well served to steal its motto from the book title by Jesse Ventura, I Ain’t Got Time To Bleed.

The idea of rebirth is with me a lot these days, informing either the personal, immediate pictures I make in quarantine or the visual stories I’m hungry to find whenever it’s safe to venture out. I’m not an official chronicler of this mess, but I know we’ll create a vast and very human archive from all this misery. Like all things in life, it will pass, and we will creatively struggle with ways to mark the passage. To take measure of our own scar tissue, and the corrective surgery we will undergo to make the scars less obvious. In the meantime, even the pictures we make while isolated are important ones. See how long my hair got? Oh, sure, that was the home office we improvised. Yeah, this was my favorite window to look out: it kept me anchored.

2011: From left: the lower portion of the new World Trade Center One tower, the 90 Church Street post office, and, in back of the memorial pool, the site where the Oculus PATH terminal would be built just a few years later.

Photographs are as remote or as personal as we determine them to be, but, even at their most introspective, they will say something about the human condition in general. This is how I got through. And maybe it’s similar to how you did it. There will be remembrance, but there will be no lingering over smoking ruins. We ain’t got time to bleed. Woodrow Wilson once compared the relatively new art of motion pictures to “teaching history by lightning”. That’s the pace now. We move rapidly from the role of mourners to the role of builders. And we will etch the resulting lightning inside our cameras, to simply state, we passed this way.

YOU AS DEFAULT

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THERE IS AN ONGOING, BUT SELDOM HOSTILE, debate among photographers over whether manual or automatic focus is superior, or in which cases one or the other performs better. This forum is not an attempt to settle that issue, any more than I’d squeeze myself in between two auto aficionados to weigh in on either manual or automatic transmissions. Suffice it to say that nearly every shooter I know has a preference, if not an outright belief, on the subject. So be it. Peace, love, dove. Make pictures, not war. Anything in the following that sounds like a recommendation is merely a description of what works, or doesn’t work, for moi.

Autofocus systems are, in fact, an attempt by technology to make it easier to check off at least one box from your “before I can take the picture” list, making cameras a smidge more intuitive so that it’s easier to concentrate more on the why of making the image and less on the how. Of course, your mileage may vary on whether you regard this as a kindly assist or an untoward interference. Photographers of a certain age predate the autofocus era, and so had no choice but to master manual until the AF option was introduced. For those who started making pictures in the last thirty years or so, however, AF pretty much came with any toy you bought, and there may be little occasion to even read up on how to approach things manually.  And then there are those, like myself, who lean in one direction (manual) while toggling the other way in special cases. I cal this the “me as default” system.

How to give an auto-focus system the nervous fits.

There are certainly times when the sheer speed of autofocus is bloody convenient, such as so-called “run and gun” situations where conditions on an event or person are in a constant state of flux (think little league baseball, bird watching), at which times I will gratefully lean on AF to avoid missing shots. However, I am often reminded how many things, from low light to the wrong combination of elements in a composition to time exposures, will absolute leave the autofocus searching, grabbing and blunder-blind. These will vary depending on the age of your camera, manufacturer, even the design bias of a particular lens. I have spent a long time trying to nail manual focus with less and less reaction time, and, to that end, I shoot for long stretches without changing lenses so as to become more instinctual about what a given chunk of glass will do. There’s also the idea of personal agency. In manual mode, I am not delegating to the AF the decision on what should be in focus: it’s my call completely. This, again, is a very personal decision, and there is no right or wrong choice. For me, being responsible for every major decision in making an exposure is the only way for me to feel as if it’s my picture. That said, I no longer mess around with a light meter or figure out flash settings with a slide rule and a sextant, so I can easily be called out for my hypocrisy. Still.

And then there’s the occasional oddball situation, like the above image, in which you can get a little playful with what either AF or manual can or can’t do. But as I said at the start, we are not here to settle this issue as we might decide the winner in a boxing match. If your pictures come out the way you want, then it matters little if you even had a lens on the camera. Both manual and AF shooting situations have their travails. I guess what I’m finally getting to is that both approaches will serve you in certain times. Find out what those occasions are, and master them, and yourself, in the process.

DE-PURPOSED, RE-PURPOSED

Next We Visited The Transportation Exhibit, 2020

By MICHAEL PERKINS

HOW TO FEEL OLD, EXAMPLE #473: Sending a photograph of a “shirt pocket” A.M. transistor radio from the early ’60 to a friend, only to have said friend’s grandson ask him what the object is.

We often talk in these pages about context and how that can shape an image. If people have context for the subjects you depict, or understand how they relate to other things in their experience, they interpret the picture in a certain way. I know that thing, I use it everyday. Remove that context, however, making the subject a kind of associative free-spot, not tied to any particular memory or use, and the object loses its meaning. It’s unanchored, and can mean anything the photographer intends. My friend shouldn’t be surprised that my old radio is meaningless in his grandson’s experience. But if I am a photographer who’s chosen to re-purpose that radio in a context of my own making, my options are wide open.

The “futuremobile” in its original context.

Most things in our world are designed to do one thing. For example, a piano is never asked to do the work of a crescent wrench. But, the argument could be made,   if you somehow don’t know what a piano is for, I can photographically tell you it is… a crescent wrench. The clear object in the above photo is designed for one task only…to hold and help dispense razor blade cartridges (see left). Its context is so narrow that, as soon as I remove it from my bathroom sink, it is already without a visual frame of reference. I can thus abstract it in nearly any way I want…for example, suggesting that it’s a futuristic concept car in a world’s fair. Yes, it’s a fairly silly exercise, but I show it here not to demonstrate how marvelously inventive I am but how inventive it’s possible to be, once an interesting thing is de-purposed and then re-purposed by the photographer’s eye.

What is macro photography, if not an attempt to make us see things in a completely different way, to make a creepy bug look like a marvel of engineering or a garden flower a self-contained universe? We don’t really consider to what extent we are constantly re-purposing things with our cameras. Even adjustment in white balance or lighting are attempts to impose our own perception onto reality…..again, to take it out of one context (the sky is always blue in the afternoon) and re-frame it in another (not today: today the sky is magenta). For me, the ultimate complement is not, “oh, what a pretty picture” but “I never looked at it that way.” Because photography begins as a mere documentary craft, but ripens, in the right hands, into an interpretive art.

TO-DO’s AND TO-DONT’S

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ONE OF THE EASIEST THINGS TO LEARN ABOUT IN PHOTOGRAPHY, apparently, is what you’re doing wrong, or so a casual stroll through the Googleweb would suggest. The internet is lots of things, but  starved for opinions it ain’t, and so one of the fattest search yields you’ll find online consists of lists, endless in number, on how we are falling short as shooters. You may have sought them out yourself: “Ten most common mistakes”, “the beginner errors everyone makes” “twenty things not to do with your pictures” and so on into the night, rosters of failure and shame compiled by everyone from prominent pros to the village idiot. Actually, that’s unfair. Likely the village idiot is having too much fun taking photos to worry a lot about whether he’s doing it right. As a lifelong village idiot, I can attest that it takes one to know one.

Many of the sins, both venial and mortal, that make up these “to-don’t” lists are of a purely technical nature, such as picking the right aperture or making sure that you haven’t posed a subject in such a way as to make it appear that a hibiscus is sprouting out of the top of his head. Surprisingly, there are fewer suggestions about composure…what makes it stark or busy, what makes it fail to engage or confusing to “read”…than you’d suppose. Almost none of these lists actually address ideas or motivation. And so I mainly regard all such lists with a bit of an arched eyebrow, for the simple reason that they are so very practical. Practical and art are not often on speaking terms.

Pictures are built, not taken.

Orson Welles, a directorial virgin when he arrived in Hollywood to make Citizen Kane, was told by his cinematographer Gregg Toland that there was nothing about shooting a picture that couldn’t be taught in a weekend. Welles’ verdict: Toland was right. Still photography is similar: the mechanics of merely getting a picture into the box are not like the procedures for splitting the atom: much of the moves we make to make an image are but variations on the moves we’e always made, and even without formal instruction, digital has made the learning curve so short that you can muster (if not master) the basics in a few days. It’s what to do with all those technical tips that separates the men/women from the boys/girls, and the endless online (or printed) to-don’t lists don’t even address that amidst all their edicts on lighting and lenses. Because they can’t. Because it can’t be taught like the steps of changing your oil can be taught. It can be learned, but only from yourself. Certainly, if you can’t see, you can still shoot. It just won’t matter that you did, that’s all.

The reason arbitrary rules don’t work with art is because art works best when rules are broken. If all we had to do with a camera was faithfully record light and dark, we would eventually, with practice, all have the same level of excellence. But we don’t. And we can’t. Sometimes a picture just works, despite some line judge saying that it’s too dark, too blurry, or too busy. And if a picture does not transmit your passion to someone else, then all the technical excellence in the world can’t make it connect any better. Why don’t all the do-and-don’t lists talk about motivation, or intention, or just the habit of shooting mindfully? Because that is a matter of mystery beyond measurement. A picture is built, not taken. It happens within the eye and mind of the shooter, and sometimes leapfrogs over all the correct techniques to arrive at a result that is too personal to be contained in a rule book.

DANCING IN THE DARK (PARTS ONE AND TWO)

By MICHAEL PERKINS

UNDER-EXPOSURE, AS A MEANS OF DEEPENING OR SATURATING COLOR, has its supporters in every era of photography. At the same time, the deliberate act of starving an image of light will always strike some as “wrong”, as if there were only a single “right” way to make a picture. You pays yer money and you takes yer choice.

For the purposes of this little coffee talk, when I say “under-exposure”, I am not referring to accidental shots that result from shooting in a low-light situation. Those I call “mistakes” or “bad luck”. I’m speaking here of shots, often done in average or even ideal light, that are planned…for example, setting the camera a few f/stops slower than what would normally be considered “correct”(hate that word). Now, this may seem to be a fairly non-controversial choice, unless, of course, you open the whole thing up to debate, which is always trouble.

Turns out there are two distinct camps regarding under-exposure: those who prefer to expose the shot as normal, custom-crafting the darker shot in post, and those who would rather do everything in-camera. Some of the fix-it later crowd claim that digital, by itself, doesn’t produce good under-exposures the way that the old slide films did without some outside assistance. By contrast, the in-cammers, my home team, believe that not shooting in the moment results in too many opportunities lost. The subject is here, now. The lighting, which you can do almost anything with, is here, now. Your brain, and any active experimentation for not only the exposure strategy, but the strategy for every part of the capture process is here, in real time, now. I can’t imagine surrendering even a smidge of that control to hope you can, in effect, second-guess yourself later in the editing suite.

The two shots here were taken mere seconds apart in super-bright mid-morning Arizona sun. They are both manual exposures and are but two of about six frames done at different exposures, so that I would have plenty of choices were I to later sweeten any of them in the “lab”. The two shots posted here show how much control can be exercised. The lighter shot was taken at the acceptably front-to-back sharp aperture of f/5.6, at 1/400 sec., while the darker frame is closed down to f/16 (even sharper) at 1/500 sec. Both shots can be either darkened or lightened later, if need be, without any blow-outs in the brights or discernible noise in the lows, and you can see the pronounced difference in how the color values register. Again, I have no horse in this race: use what you want to get to the finish line, be it rain boots or cross-trainers. I just happen to like having the most control ahead of the click, and, in the digital age, I can shoot at any “film speed” with fewer errors and more immediate feedback than by glorifying either The Golden Age of Darkrooms or the Second Coming of Photoshop. Your mileage may vary….

 

THERE WENT ME

“You look angry”, someone said after looking at this recent portrait. Well, yeah…

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE A BIT LIKE AUTHORS OF WRITTEN MEMOIRS, in that they have to constantly worry about their trustworthiness as narrators. Armed with a machine that can shape perceptions and even influence history, can we be relied upon to tell the truth (if anyone can agree on what the truth is)? One of the key “tells” of a photographer’s veracity should be his or her ability to showcase themselves in a portrait. But that, in terms of honesty, is actually where most of the mischief occurs.

This seems counterintuitive. How can we not be the ultimate authority on how we look, or how we should be visually captured? Some of it may be how the portrait, and the selfie in turn, has evolved over the centuries. When photography was new, having your portrait “made” was an attempt to make a document of yourself. To record the official version of you. Opportunities to do so were expensive and sparse. Once photography became a mass-appeal hobby, the snapshot made portraits less formal, and, in turn, less important. People went, within a generation, from having one or two pictures made of their faces to having hundreds snapped. In recent years, even more drastic changes in ease and convenience have squared and cubed that number, as we pose for more images of ourselves than we can even put a number to. And, along the line, we have become better and better at hiding more of what we consider the boring or bad parts from the omnipresent camera.

I have been trying for weeks to think about what The Quarantine has collectively done to the human face, and how that can be documented. Some visual impacts, like strap marks on the faces of surgeons or grief carved onto the features of the bereaved, are readily apparent. But how to measure photographically what the crisis has done to our insides? What of those costs are even readable on our faces? Suddenly, a very special opportunity, or obligation, is re-connected to the selfie. Now, in the interest of truth-telling, we must un-learn the clever tricks that allow us to regularly look in the camera and lie, creating false images that say I’m doing fine. My life is great. I don’t need any help…

What you see here is an experiment. It’s not really “posed” in the standard sense, as I shot it as part of a rapid series that allowed me only minimal time to prepare, or, if you will, overthink what my expression “should be”. This is thus a piece of me, in the context of these days, but it’s not the entire story. It’s, if you will, less of a lie, but also less of the complete truth about whoever I am these days. I’m not completely untrustworthy as a narrator, but whole big parts of me are still fighting the process of baring it all. Maybe I can’t get there. Maybe none of us can. But photographers are charged with looking for answers, even if they fail in completely nailing them down.

SNAPS FROM THE STONE AGE

By MICHAEL PERKINS

YOU GET NO ARGUMENT FROM ME if you make the claim that photographic portraits are lies. I can’t see how they could be anything else.

Well, maybe the word lie is too negatively loaded, so let’s use faulty. Faulty works because both subject and photographer are up to some little games, conscious or no, once the camera comes out. They pose. We enhance. They edit out unwanted emotions. We choose the “real” image from several “failed” frames. Most importantly, we influence the results with either an overabundance of knowledge, and bias, regarding the subject, or with the opposite….a completely raw ignorance of who, really, is in front of our lenses. This is the natural subjectivity that we bring to photographing anything, and it is by putting our individual interpretation on it that we get something we call “art”.

At this writing, a storm is raging over what constitutes an appropriate portrait subject in a medium that far predates the camera…stone. Statues are the snapshots of the ancients, and, because of the human factor involved in their sculpting, they are as biased and distorted as anything that comes through a modern lens. Either the sculptors were commissioned by people who had a point to make, or else they themselves decided to make said point. These honorific slabs are idealizations, no less than a heavily Photoshopped portrait of a cute infant. No one ever set out to create a statue that made the subject appear weak, or hateful, or anything less than glorious, and such a baseline bias means the results will be skewed, from the figure’s rippling muscles to his chiseled jaw to his resolute gaze to the way he sits a horse. For good or ill, a statue is an artistic attempt to create perfection out of a mix of fact, legend and marble.

The National Statuary Hall in Washington D.C. “Should I Stay Or Should I Go…?”

Problem is, once the real person who inspires a sculpture vanishes from the earth, the statue becomes the only record of him, flawed or not. In the age of photography, we can do some comparison shopping when formulating our concept of, well anyone. Picture “A” makes him look happy, but he was drunk when we snapped Picture “B”, he was morose in Picture “C” and, hey, Picture ‘D” is really gorgeous isn’t it? We can, in the present day, get a visual average of what someone is like, even though all of the many pictures of them may also contain false information. But statues are different. Their single view of a person’s life encourages us to learn less, to accept the official version of that person, to see History’s rough edges rounded off. Statues outlast context and when new context is applied to them, we may find we don’t actually like them very much….or that they remind us of something in ourselves that we don’t like, or both.

The National Statuary Hall, seen here, is inside the U.S. Capitol building and contains two figures from each of the fifty states. Google a listing of the statues and ask yourself which ones you personally would nominate for demolition. Maybe they all pass muster throughout the shifting centuries. Maybe some will, or deserve to, fall. But what makes any portrait live or wither is context, and anyone deciding what art is “unacceptable” must also become a diligent student of that context. We constantly create untrustworthy images with our cameras, and we think we know how those faces will hold up before future audiences. But time has a way of making us all look foolish, perhaps rightly so. What’s required in all cases is distance, balance, and humility.

 

BAGGAGE TAGS

If a picture works, how can it matter what equipment was used to create it?

By MICHAEL PERKINS

“I DON’T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT ART”, goes the old joke about a lowbrow walking through a gallery, “but I know what I like.” Turns out that, in terms of how a photographer can remain true to his or her own heart, that’s a pretty wise statement. The message: don’t carry around loaded words that no one can define. Stick with your instincts, since they are beyond labels. Labels like “art”.

We place little verbal baggage tags on lots of things, mostly as convenient mental shortcuts, and so, in discussions about picture-making, the word art gets dropped more than an MC’s mic. And while it’s only mildly annoying that people bandy around a word that none of us even know the meaning of, it’s usually used to talk about something we aspire to do, i.e., “make art”. In today’s marketing environment, however, the whole thing has moved from silly to sinister, as the word art is now attached to certain kinds of equipment, so-called “art lenses” (as they are often called in advertisements), meaning, I guess, that you can buy the ability to make art. Just send for our free booklet…

The idea that art can be achieved with the purchase of a particular piece of gear is like saying that if you buy a really expensive hammer, you’re an architect. Or, let’s come at it from the reverse angle. Are we saying that, since I don’t own a certain kind of camera, I can’t make art? A quick Google of the phrase “what is an art lens” will actually dredge up three or more solid pages of links to a single lens manufacturer (whose products are on the high end of the precision scale) who cleverly put the word art in the actual name of an entire line of their optics.  On the other end of the spectrum, in the land of instinctual, hipster-bound low-fidelity photography, a second manufacturer also refers to its product as creating “art” effects. Okay, so let’s parse this thinking out a little.

What can an “art lens” actually do? Is it specialized glass (think fisheyes, macros, selective focus) that performs one effect well? Does that confer “art” on your work? Is it anything that radically improves sharpness, or, vice versa, radically diminishes it in a desirable fashion? Is it a particular focal length, resolution rate, distortion spec? Does it cook your lunch and get your dog’s teeth 30% cleaner in ten days?  Is the image seen up top “artistic?” And does my choice of equipment have any role in that? Was I doing something with an expensive optic to get this look, or was I shooting with something so basic that it always produces this result? And who is to say?

Art is hard enough to identify without slapping the word “art” on a particular hunk of gear. Art is nearly impossible to define, but, like the guy in the gallery, you know what you like. And the completely individual definition of that sensation is what makes for art…not a purchase, not a baggage tag, not an advertising claim. Equipment is less of a determinant in excellence than any other factor in photography. And those who quack the loudest about what “art” is may be, in the final analysis, as clueless to name it as the rest of us.

 

CURIOUSER AND CURIOUSER

“we gotta get outta this place…”

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IN READING ALICE IN WONDERLAND as a child, I tried to imagine myself in the heroine’s place as she was buffeted about between strange creatures and bizarre environments. I wasn’t sure how I would react to a talking White Rabbit or an infant who turned into a pig at a moment’s notice, but I felt that, if I had to improvise while being alternatively enlarged and shrunk, as poor Alice was, that I would be ingenious enough to master my situation. All those “eat mes” and “drink mes” would have been tough to manage, for sure, but my natural explorer’s spirit would, I was confident, prevail in the end.

The current international cabin fever has made me think a lot of Alice lately, both Tiny Alice, being swept away in a torrent of her own tears, and Overgrown Alice, straining at the cramped limits of a house she has outgrown. You can see where I’m going with this. As photographers, we often are outwardly biased. The next great picture is somewhere “out there”. We are just one mile and a quick left turn from something stunning, and, in most cases, it’s beyond our own back yard (apologies here to Dorothy Gale as well). Add a forced quarantine into the formula, however, and we feel, at some point, like Overgrown Alice, thrusting a hand out the window of a micro-house. We fear there’s “nothing to shoot”. Our typically cheery disposish becomes dark and churlish. We start to watch daytime TV and bake.

Doing more with less un-shrinks the house.

Overgrown Alice’s constantly morphing dimensions made her constantly re-evaluate her world by the latest shifting data, with the very special challenge of being crushed by its shrinking confines. Photographers who are locked inside are likewise forced to re-think their relationships to objects in their environment…to re-contextualize everything. A flower under the macro lens becomes an entire botanical garden. Objects too familiar to be noticed under normal conditions become fascinating examples of design and pattern when seen from a different angle or distance. Anything and everything can become completely new because we have been forced, through either genius or boredom, to change our perceptions. A web search of the phrase cabin fever photography has become a major trender in recent months, and with good reason. We can’t go out to shoot as we’d prefer: we have to turn the camera further in. In so doing, we find ways to get more and more out of less and less. We discover, as we must regularly do as photograpers, that our relationship with the world must be as flexible as Alice in all her sizes, to guarantee perpetual refreshment of how we see. We gotta get curiouser and curiouser.

A NEW KIND OF INTIMACY

General Ulysses Grant, in camp near the battle of Cold Harbor, 1864.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ULYSSES S. GRANT HAS BEEN REMEMBERED AS A MAN OF SEVERAL “FIRSTS”. He has been called the first practitioner of “modern” warfare, utilizing methods that rendered the courtly style of his Confederate foes obsolete. He also was the first American president to pen a purely military autobiography. History students can probably agree on other career distinctions. But in watching the recent excellent History Channel miniseries on his life (based on the book by Ron Chernow, author of Alexander Hamilton), it becomes clear that the eighteenth president was also the first to have nearly his entire adult life documented in photographs. In a print world still dominated by illustrations and engravings, Grant was captured on glass plates over three hundred times in the space of about twenty years, twice as often as such luminaries as Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain. In point of fact, Ulysses S. Grant was the most photographed man in the world over the span of the entire nineteenth century.

At a time when most people lived out their lives without posing for even a single portrait, Grant endured dozens of formal “sittings”, caught as well in photojournalist snaps by Matthew Brady’s roving band of Civil War photographers, who pictured him poring over maps, sitting in tent-side conferences with other officers, conferring with his president in both the field and the capitol, attending that same president’s funeral, welcoming visitors to his own White House, resting with family on his front porch. Consider: being photographed in the 1800’s was, for a time, an occasion, a privilege, maybe even an accident. Certainly, Grant was not the first president to have his picture “made”, but the sheer volume of views of him across his public life was a quantum leap from our visual sense of any public figure up to that time. Chernow’s book (and the miniseries) both reckon with the incredible explosion in notoriety wrought by Grant’s roles as both the general who won the war and the president who tried to preside over the peace. And while some of the incredible trove of photo images of Grant can be accounted for by breakthroughs in the technical growth and expansion of photography during his lifetime, the astonishing bulk of it can only be attributed to the fact that Grant was an international celebrity, one of the first in the Industrial Age.

WIthout his realizing it, Ulysses Grant had come along in one of those transformational transition periods in history in which our established way of viewing things is undergoing a convulsion toward something completely different. Photography, in his time, was slowly re-negotiating our relationship to our leaders. They ceased to operate at a distance or as abstractions. They now had features, dimensions, traits brought to us in a new kind of intimacy that only the camera could create. And as films and lenses improved, the stiff formality of a sitting portrait gave way to images of a much more spontaneous, candid nature. The image seen here (which I love) is itself a transitional one. Grant had to remain still long enough for the still-slow exposure times of the Brady corps’ devices, but already he has to remain at attention for a much shorter span that he might have in a studio just a few years prior. The most important element of the pose, however, is a kind of tell about Grant’s priorities. His face seems to say, take the picture already…I’ve got more important things to do.

First paparazzi prez? Hardly. But over the term of his public life, Ulysses Grant may be the first president to be, almost, our public property, a “person of interest” in purely visual terms. As now, sitting (or standing, or running) for a portrait is no guarantee that the truth will make it through the lens. But there are certain times in the history of photography where a pivot point is glowingly obvious, and the weary resignation in Grant’s face is a kind of seismograph of what was to come, for good or ill, for all of us.

PAST SIGHTS AND OTHER BLIGHTS

There was actually a time when I thought this image was “good”. That time has now passed.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

DURING MY CAREER IN RADIO, I lost count of how many times I heard people react to recordings of their voice with the remark, “that doesn’t even sound like me”. The statement is funny because it’s both true and false. As a series of stored electromagnetic signals that are a scientific record of sound, the tape certainly recreates the original noises we make: and yet our inner version of ourself seems distorted, as if we’re looking in a funhouse mirror. That can’t be us. Fact is, we’re often the world’s worst authority on what we are or are not, something that’s measured by the things we create.

Stay with me.

The current Great Hibernation that we’re all enduring is a great opportunity to clean house, to get to those dreaded “someday” lists that somehow always involve getting rid of things, of paring down. For photographers, this can involve finally curating old online images (not originals), a process which, like hearing our recorded voices, introduces us to versions of ourselves that we no longer recognize. Put enough distance between yourself and a picture you made a while ago and you can actually forget what it was about the thing that seemed a good idea at the time. And when you become estranged from an idea, it’s tough to love it enough to keep it around. Delete.

Of course, there are the other cases, in which you can clearly recall what you were after, and how, sadly, the result differs greatly from your “vision”. I don’t know which is worse, not recognizing your original intention or recognizing it all too well and wanting to distance yourself from it. Delete.

Some images are orphans. You posted them, you tagged them, you continued to love them, but no one else wanted to come to the party. “They” didn’t get it because….why? A million reasons. Whatever the missed connection was due to, these fatherless kiddos aren’t your best work. Delete.

There are also special circles of my own private hell for “lipstick on a pig” pictures. You know the ones. They’re inadequate or ill-conceived, but you are convinced that by torturing them into new versions of themselves with apps or software (see above, gulp), you can somehow make up for the fact that you blew the master image. That’s not just putting lipstick on a pig, that’s telling yourself that the pig is actually Sophia Loren. Delete.

There is actually an upside to this process. With all the chaff you will also review all the wheat, occasionally astonishing yourself at how lucky/persistent/prescient you were. This is truly an investment in hope, since, it stands to reason, if you could mine gold once, you might, just might be able to do it again. Taken in full, a healthy and brutal review of past sights and other blights is as valuable as going out today to shoot all new stuff. More valuable, actually, because everything you shoot today is a by-product of all the keepers and weepers that went before. Understanding who you were informs who you will be. And while it’s humbling to find that you’re not always perfect, it’s a genuine comfort to know that sometimes you ring the bell.

 

GO ON. LOOK IT UP. WE DARE YOU.

Reading the directions isn’t always a guarantee of success. Still….

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ANYONE WHO HAS PURCHASED A CAMERA IN RECENT YEARS  could easily conclude that the relationship between manufacturers and consumers has moved into a unique new place. Quite simply, the reason camera-makers make certain features, and what they believe we want them for, has fundamentally changed.

Since the push, near the beginning of the digital era, to make basic camera operation more and more instinctual (which is to say, make the cameras smarter so we can think about their processes less and less), several stages of the maker/user relationship can be observed. In the first stage, the classic owner manual is split into two separate publications: the “quick start” booklet of twenty-some pages in which the basic operations of the camera are explained: and the “full-on” manual, which includes all the information in the booklet along with everything else the camera does beyond just pointing and clicking. This first stage has lasted some twenty years, after which we have entered a second phase in which cameras are being sold with only the quick start guide included, while the full manual exists not even as a physical  book but as a download. This is a very big change in emphasis, when you think about it.

Obviously the camera makers still think some people want a boatload of options and features built into their cameras. But their research must be showing them that, not only do fewer and fewer people want to know how these tools work, it’s not even important to tell them that such features exist. There is no other reason for the manufacturers to make a shift to a business model in which the full manual need is not even included with a camera purchase, other than a belief that the majority of users will take pictures in much the same way with much the same finite menu of options for as long as they own their cameras. Moreover, the makers must be convinced that it’s safe to save money by not including more sophisticated guides for their products because most people will never miss them or seek them out.

The “just the basics” approach to user manuals makes a little more sense with compacts and point-and-shoots than it might with full-on mirrorless or DSLR models, but in between those two extremes there is the growing middle ground of “bridge” cameras, units that hybridize the convenience and simplicity of the low-end of the market with the vast array of features from the higher end. Instruction for these mid-phase cameras is important both for the basic photographer, who is now ready for some additional flexibility, and the more experienced shooter, who wants to know how much “less” is being offered from what he’s used to. Certainly cameras are capable of accomplishing more and more with less and less human input. But photography is about more than merely “getting a picture”, and it should be easier, not harder, for consumers to learn the full use of devices in which they’ve invested serious money.

 

 

BEFORE WE GO ANY FURTHER….

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I’M A FEW WEEKS LATE in observing what has become a nearly annual habit in the pages of The Normal Eye since its launch some nine years ago. Like all of us (and certainly most photographers), I get swept up in what I think is important in the moment, and I can, at times, forget my manners. I’ve slung a lot of words in your direction over the better part of a decade, but only two of them really matter.

Thank you.

Thanks for subscribing. For reading. For sticking around. For caring enough to take issue with ideas, and to occasionally add your support for them. Thanks for helping me remember that, although technical knowledge is always a key part of photography, the real things that animate it as an art are motivations. Dreams. Attempts to make a visual record of our desires and dreads. To say that photography is about a certain camera or lens or setting is to say that painting is about the brushes, and we have always tried to keep our main mission in focus: to share, yes, what tools can help us, but, most importantly, what it feels like to face creative decisions and do your best to realize those decisions in a remarkably flexible medium, possibly the greatest storytelling vehicle man has ever known.

We are all visitors who, like the dimly lit young man in the museum. enter in shadow and emerge into light. 

These pages pose plenty of questions, but I have tried not to insist that my personal answers to those questions are recommendations for all. I’m not Dear Abby. I have no set solutions to challenges that register differently with every eye and every camera. At most, what I write here is in the way of a field diary: I was presented with this and I decided to try….that. What you read here is an active, developing story of what I encounter and learn on my journey. You may find some common notes between my melody and yours, and you just as easily might dismiss that melody as noise. And that’s just fine.

While rummaging through a lot of old files in recent days (we all have extra time on our hands these days) I’m struck with how many images I’ve made of the insides of museums. Not to document the specific exhibitions of any particular place, but to show the feeling that I get inside such spaces. The potential for amazement. The fact that, any second now, something transformative could swing out of the darkness into clear view..challenging me to see differently. In that way, all of life serves as a museum, a collection of artifacts that can appear, depending on our perception, either as elegant clutter or inspiration. I know what choice I’ve made, and it’s the same choice made by all of you, every time you seek other sources of joy, other teachers, other talents. Thanks for making The Normal Eye one of the stops on your journey, and thanks for the energy you have invested in helping me make it better.

BIRDS, DOGS AND A HEALTHY CRUNCH

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ALMOST SINCE THE DAWN OF PHOTOGRAPHY, there has been one format or another for the creation of three-dimensional views. The first, and by far the most successful of the “armchair traveler” systems was the elegant stereopticon, the gadget through which paired, cardboard-mounted images transported the Victorian explorer to the wonders of the world,  at precisely the same moment that many of those sites/sights were being photographically documented for the very first time. The Keystone View Company and its several imitators littered the planet with travelogues and celebrity portraits for nearly seventy years, and even served as many a hobbyist’s first introduction to color pictures (albeit hand-tinted ones) created years ahead of any practical chromatic film.

Keystone’s expansive packets on various subjects included lavish text on the card’s backs, and were marketed to adults with an emphasis on erudition. Over the next hundred years, dozens of 3-d formats would be launched, many of them supplying at least a smidge of context on their subjects, lots of them riding the line between serious devices and toys. The world’s most successful stereo product by far, View-Master, began with scenic titles in 1939, and has survived to the present day by licensing the use of Disney characters, TV and movie scenes, and in the 21st century, even an attempt at a virtual reality re-boot.

A late-1950s’ VistaScreen 3-d card viewer, shown here with stereo cards given away inside Weetabix cereal boxes in the U.K.

Leaning heavily on the kid’s plaything side of the ledger, a folding plastic card viewer from the late ’50’s called VistaScreen issued series on birds, animals and other subjects accompanied by neat little explanatory paragraphs. View sets were sold at the tourist attractions that they depicted as well as by mail order. The company’s brief tenure was boosted a bit in the early ’60’s when it entered into a promotion with the United Kingdom’s most successful cold breakfast cereal, Weetabix (think shredded wheat without the thrills). Kids in Australia, England, and New Zealand mailed away for the viewer (emblazoned with the product’s name on the back) and then collected one new stereo card per “packet” of cereal. There were 6 different sets of 25 cards with series names like Working Dogs, Thrills, British Cars, British Birds, Animals, and Our Pets. The cereal cards were disdained by stereo purists for being substantially inferior in quality to VistaScreen’s mail order sets, but the promotion actually kept the company alive for most of its five-year span, while also making a childhood 3-d fan of many a youngster, including Brian May, destined to become a stereoscopic collector, astrophysicist, and, not incidentally, the co-founder of Queen.

As a childhood View-Master geek, I was delighted to discover the VistaScreen system a few years back, since it was actually the stereo formats, and not standard “flat” photography, that first taught me composition and the importance of telling a clear visual story within a strict format. It’s ironic that I don’t typically shoot a lot of scenic titles these days, and yet have a lifelong affection for the travel images of my first photographic “toys”, the bait that got me to first pick up a camera and ask myself, “will this be a picture?”

And I didn’t have to eat Weetabix.

LOOK, UP IN THE SKY!

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IN ONE SENSE, THE GLOBAL LOCKDOWN OF 2020 has created the biggest simultaneously experienced event outside of a world war. The advertising slogans are right: we really are in this altogether. On the other hand (thinking purely like a photographer), the way we all go through this is often solitary, hidden from mass view. Many of our struggles are not waged in the public eye, which is where so many amazing images are born. Instead, we are living with a mass event without the mass reactions.

And so, yes, I miss crowds. Audiences. Throngs. Multitudes cheering, crying, yearning, celebrating. Because photographs of those instantaneous, shared emotions are, in themselves, deeply affecting, sometimes more so than whatever the crowd is actually reacting to. A static picture of a guy cranking a bat around to send a homer over the back fence is one thing, while the backdrop of amazed thousands seeing him do so takes the photo to a completely different level. Certainly, we all crave solitude, as a measure of what is most personally affecting or shaping us, and photographs borne of those feelings are undeniably poignant. But in this time of general-suffering-individually-contained, we are robbed of the pictures that actually show us all being in it together. Consider the opening to the old 1950’s Superman series. It’s not that a guy is flying right over your head: it’s that you’re in a crowded street full of people all having your minds blown simultaneously. Look! Up in the sky……

Stormbreak, Hollywood, 2014

The aftermath of a rainstorm over the Hollywood Hill, seen here, would have been gorgeous all by itself. But what makes me love this picture most is the fact that everyone gathered here (actually visitors to Griffith Observatory, which points the opposite direction, and packs its own killer view, of downtown L.A.) has been struck by the same wonder at the same time. We are all, for a few moments, one person. For just a few seconds, nothing is as important as what we’re seeing and feeling, together.

There will be a time, again, when images will be made of us all emerging from this shadow, all blinking our collective eyes at the strange sensation of walking back into the sunlight. And yes, there will, in the anxious interim, be news footage of us cramming like crazed ants into beach bars or partying heedlessly in crowded streets. But that brief surge of manic novelty won’t be the real picture. The real picture will occur when honest cameras register the genuine joy of not just getting back out but getting back to each other, and pointing skyward to ask, “is that a bird? A plane…?”

A MILITIA OF MILLIONS

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THERE WERE NO CAMERAS IN THE WORLD when America fought the first war on its soil, leaving mostly paintings of generals on horseback as a visual chronicle of the struggle. Now, in our latest war, also on our soil, there are millions of images created each day that strive to comprise a pictorial narrative of the unfolding tragedy. But more is not necessarily more: when the final battle has been fought, there will still be oceans of pictures missing from the saga, stories still left untold.

Perhaps it’s the nature of this very strange conflict, fought not against combatants with rifles but against Nature itself, which makes the pictures come so hard. Now, there is no visible demarcation between soldier and civilian: there is no designated field of combat, but thousands of little ones, many of the clashes and outcomes unseen, the casualties themselves vaporized in a fog of grief. And yet we struggle for any kind of visual measurement, some yardstick by which to measure our pain. The task may be beyond the power of any camera, at least any of which we’re aware.

Boston, 2016

I’ve been searching over the past few days through my own stacks for the above image, because, being of a revolutionary-era churchyard in Boston, the markers shown are literally those among the first to fall in that earliest of American wars. Given that the inscriptions on the tablets have been almost totally effaced by time and the elements, I consider these monuments symbolic of the strangely imposed information blackout we are all under regarding today’s citizen soldiers, many of whom vanish from our mist without formal lists, monuments, or in all too many cases, even a human goodbye. Like the data once stored on these blank slates, our true talIy of sorrow has been edited, censored by fate.

I feel that, in the year 2020, the meaning of Memorial Day has been unalterably changed for me, and for everyone in our dread new militia of millions. Many of the fallen were not drafted, nor did they volunteer, and yet they have been conscripted by destiny in a way that is fully consistent with those whom we normally honor on this day. Many may never be inscribed on a monument that our children may visit on a school field trip: their faces will, in many cases, escape our cameras. Many more will never be interred with a flourish of folded flags or the reassuring regimen of military pomp. Still, over the coming years, watching ourselves and other survivors remember the fallen may inspire us to create new kinds of images, scenes that we can scarecely dream of at present. As with those headstones from our first days of passage, we need to retain what symbols we can of what we have lost, seeking in time to fill in the rest, to develop the remainder of the picture.

180 DEGREES OF SEPARATION

Contrast, clutter and exposure woes galore in this original shot of an Art Deco lobby.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

REFLECTIONS, OF ANYTHING, ON ANYTHING, ARE DECEPTIVE in the way they seem to store information in a photograph. We tend to think of them as perfect mirror images of something, a complete yin to something else’s yang. But if reflections are twins of a sort, they are seldom identical twins, as the duplicate is almost certain to be an imperfect copy of the original.

Consider the “mirror” idea. Anything reflected in one is, at the very least, reversed. And then we go further: are there any spots or streaks on the mirror? Did a strange bounce of light create a flare or a prismatic break of color that doesn’t occur in what’s reflected?  The truth is that even a mirror reflection is not perfect but a reasonable replica. Next, let’s consider using another reflecting surface, from water to marble to other types of glass. Now the reflections are even more adulterated. We see them through floating junk, through dirt, through bounced reflections of other things, and so on.

As photographers, we often don’t regard a reflection as anything but a handy design element, a decorative, if flawed, supplement to the thing we primarily want to show. But on occasion, the thing we have set our sights on is compromised or less than effective, while the reflection, although more abstract, even backwards from our original intent, can become the part of the picture we re-set ourselves to showcase. It’s an element of how we see (or don’t see). We automatically make the adjustment in the viewpoint between portrait and landscape orientations, and yet overlook something as simple as inverting an image, to make its passive “bottom” an active “top”, as seen here.

Cropped by half and turned on its head, the shot takes on a different flavor.

In the thumbnail of my original shot of a 1920’s-era lobby (above at left), the people above the floor clutter the scene to such as extent that the lobby loses its power as an image. There are also some pronounced exposure and contrast issues.However, with the photo flipped on its head, the luxuriously patterned Art Deco floor blends its own design patterns with an ethereal rendering of the people that changes not only the frame of reference but the very intention of the picture, especially with the distracting top half of the original cropped away. It’s a mix of the imperfect reflection material (the floor) and its ability to re-interpret all of the more literal stuff from the first version. All this to say that, instead of regarding reflections as mere duplicates of worlds, we should and can regard them as separate worlds of their own, with distinctly different stories to present to our cameras.

DOING WHATEVER I F/2

Shot with a Soviet-era Helios-44 58mm manual lens at 1/2000 sec., open to f/2.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THOSE WHO HAVE SIGNED ONTO THIS SHIP OVER THE LONG HAUL may recall that the germ idea for The Normal Eye was a year that I once spent shooting with nothing but a manual 50mm f/1.8 prime lens, forcing myself to explore all the benefits and limits of a single piece of glass in every conceivable shooting situation. I didn’t intend the year as any kind of stunt, but as a test of my own ability to re-sensitize or “normalize” my vision (primes are often called “normal” lenses for their similar field of view to the human eye) and a disciplinary experiment in which I alone was responsible for any and all results….kind of a mind-over-matter challenge. The year showed me that nearly any lens has properties which might not be readily apparent until you spend some extended play time with them.

Wait, did he just say play? But we’re photographers. This is serious business.

Well, as to that, all I can offer is Fred Rogers’ old line about children and how their play is their “work”, not a break from it. And I’ll pretty much stand by Mr. Rogers’ results. Thing is, learning absolutely every intimate detail about a lens’ performance is time-consuming, which makes it a perfect exercise for these thumb-twiddling times. Hey, during this time-out, we’ve done all the sensitive photo essays on our feelings of isolation, community, dread, etc., etc. Well and good. But this protracted behind-walls penance is also a great opportunity to bring out the equipment that we’ve either under-loved or flat-out given up on over the years. The non-favorites that we shot a little with, weren’t really thrilled with, or consigned to some dusty regret bin. Yeah, those lenses. We bought them to achieve this, but all we got was that. Yeah, those.

Forcing a brief romance with a forgotten lens is easier when there is so much time to futz away that we can afford the luxury of mistakes. After all, you’ve already taken 300 pictures of your study and your back room with the gear that you’re most comfortable with. So call those your “keepers”. Now, you can grant yourself the freedom to shoot the “losers”, the pictures that don’t matter, except for what they can teach you. Snap on a forgotten optic and enjoy the latitude of just being… bad. Hey, delete all the defects, if it bugs you that much. But shoot, and shoot, and shoot, and get past whatever barriers exist between you and those lenses, because they can be overcome, and you may be surprised to find that they really had more potential than you ever imagined.

This had to be shot a little faster, around 1/2500 sec.

The images seen here are the result of a solid week spent with a real oddball of a lens, my Helios-44 58mm f/2. These Soviet-era lenses were originally attached to Zenit cameras, some of the best knock-offs of legit European cameras that rubles could buy. The camera bodies were actually inferior to the lenses, but there were millions of each produced during the Cold War, so they are cheaper than Nancy Sinatra lip gloss. I bought mine for under $40 just to get the swirly bokeh it produces on floral work, but I discovered that, in shooting landscapes at the same f/2, I got defined focus layered with a film of dreamy glow, the kind of effect modern-day art lenses are charging hundreds to deliver. Thus most of this work week was spent trying to nail manual focus on the thing at great distances, which is a little easier to suss out with the help of one of the zillions of free depth-of-focus phone apps available. So now, in one optic, I have a bokeh beast, a decent portrait lens (at smaller apertures) and a special-effect landscape lens. The Helios won’t fetch me beer or grill me a burger, but as the Brits say, it’s Early Days. Gimme another week and it might actually feel, you know, normal.

 

AGING IN THE BARREL

What’s That Moving?, April 2020

By MICHAEL PERKINS

SOON WE WILL STOP REFERRING TO THE DAILY GLOBAL TOTAL OF SELF-PORTRAITS by any specific number, since the actual figure will be (a) impossible to ascertain and (b) so astronomical as to be meaningless. A quick shuffle through just our own collection of selfies for a given period gives us an idea what happens when technical ease meets runaway narcissism. Or to put it simpler, we take a $%#@-ton of pictures of us. We love us.

The current Great Hibernation (or Uber-Lockdown, or Mass-Incarceration or Panic-Room Marathon) is forcing us to spend even more time with our favorite person, and it stands to reason that the circumstances will change the way we decide to document what we are personally enduring. Here I am in the sixth week of my bad haircut. This is me in my formal sweatpants. I don’t know where I took this…or what time…or what day/week/month. Change the nature of a photographic subject and you’re bound to change how you’ll document that subject.

The whole social context has been warped out of shape, and so must our image of ourselves, which, after all, is shaped by how we interact, where we go, what constitutes a good or bad day. And so self-portraits are being forcibly filtered through a completely different set of criteria than they were just a heartbeat ago, when all we had to do to be somewhere else was, you know, go there. The way emotions play across our faces will be pretzeled into interesting new shapes as a consequence. As we age in this particular barrel, we will be changed. Some of us will emerge from it as palpably different from the animals that went in.

That creates challenge for photographers, especially when it’s us shooting us. How trustworthy are we as narrators? How aware of we of the subtle changes we undergo when the toilet paper runs low? The pictures will eventually provide the chronicle. But in the interim, we need to ask different questions, seek different angles, spot variances. Hey, we might as well be honest. The camera never lies, right?

INVISIBILITIES

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ONE THING THAT GUARANTEES VIRTUALLY INFINITE VARIETY AMONG PHOTOGRAPHERS is that, not only do we all see most things completely differently, we also vary wildly on what it is important to see. Turn ten photographers loose on the same subject and the results might just as well have been shot on different planets. Our individual brains seems to rank things in the world by how “view-essential” they are, or how worthy they are of our notice. This renders somethings that are vital to me nearly invisible to you.

We’ve all experienced the strange feeling of looking at images taken by someone else of a place that we have both visited at the same time, and seeing things that we could swear were never there. Who put that fountain near the plaza? Wasn’t the mountain to the left? Our mind is selectively failing to see some of the very same information that is obviously available to it, making our own work with cameras subject to selective invisibilities.

Lost Connections, Portland, Oregon, 2018.

What renders something important enough for us to actively acknowledge it? Can some things become so common, so ubiquitous in our lives that we no longer see them? In the case of the vintage cabinets shown here: what, in our daily lives, could have been more commonplace, more taken for granted, than a bank of public telephone booths? How could these structures have been more widespread than they once were, in railway stations, courthouses, department stores, bus terminals, and a million other gathering places? And would that commonality have placed them somewhat below our radar, visually speaking? Now turn that on its head: what could be more noticeable than when this everyday object is rendered obsolete, its purpose vanished in a blink of technology? Will that thing now be more visible, or completely vanished, and for whom?

I bring this up to unstick us from the tired idea that “everything’s already been photographed”, that, for the camera, there is nothing new under the sun. In reality, were we to start shooting images of all the things we have, for one reason or another, failed to see all our lives, we would find poetry and plenty in what we think of as “nothing”. Many things that are “here” go unseen simply because we will not see them, and many things that are “gone” remain because we will.

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