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ILLUMINATED

By MICHAEL PERKINS

MAN’S FIRST MAJOR QUEST WAS THE SIMPLE EFFORT TO EMERGE FROM THE DARK; the darkness of his own ignorance; the shadows of isolation, the dimness of despair. Looking back, the discovery of fire was perhaps the single greatest forward leap in our early evolution. Once we could make light, we could channel many other of our other energies, with the idea of illumination governing every one of our creative urges, literally and metaphorically. Photography is but one very direct example of what happens when you learn to, as George Eastman termed it, “harness” light.

This year, in many deeply profound ways, we have all had to make almost daily choices between light and darkness, certainly in the dire life decisions fate has placed before us, but also in the things we choose to create. Making images of the holidays that are cheery and bright used to be the most instinctual thing for us; after all, we have had a lifetime of practice. But when the light from which we craft those pictures becomes endangered, when it comes horribly close to being extinguished altogether, that’s when our artistry must double down, digging deeper to extract as much brightness as we can. Many of us have managed it in unprecedented new ways; many more would be well to practice it a lot more in the tough months to come.

Some of that effort will come from inside our cameras.

“Just What I Wanted….”

I don’t consider this image to be negative, or pessimistic. I have made, and will continue to make, those wonderful postcard creations we all strive for in normal times. But art can instruct or lead, as well as charm, and as a consequence, this is the Christmas photograph I most want to sign my name to in this season. Making others safe is the best way to make ourselves safe, and delaying our immediate gratification is the best way to ensure that we’ll be around to, humanly, ask for even more of life, later on.

And so a Merry Christmas to all. We have spent nearly a year trying to get off Nature’s “naughty” list, and now we must do much better at getting off each other’s. If there’s anything to all that storied “good will toward men” stuff, we need to make it more manifest. And make pictures of it that not only document, but illuminate.

ACCIDENTALLY ON PURPOSE

By MICHAEL PERKINS (author of the new image collection FIAT LUX, available from NormalEye Press)

FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS OF A CERTAIN AGE, that is, those who began in film and switched to digital, there was something unambiguously known as “a mistake”, by which we meant something that showed up in your final image that you either blew in execution or didn’t plan for. Smears on the lens, accidental double-exposures, lens cap left on….you get the idea. In the pre-ironic days of film, goofs were just that…goofs. They weren’t made to suggest a retro feel or simulate the look of….anything. They were merely flaws.

In the digital era, we still commit errors that wind up in our images, often for the same reason we committed them in the analog age. What’s different is that we often make these “mistakes” on purpose now, to create a mood that we associate with a romanticized view of film. One such accident that we generate intentionally purpose is lens flare.

To grossly over-simplify things (and to thus infuriate the high priests of tech), flare occurs when light enters a lens at such an angle that it is refracted or bounced within the mechanism of the lens on the way to the sensor and creates a wild, often prismatic shape that remains a permanent part of the photograph. The intensity of these bright spots is often determined by how complex the given lens is, since the more parts there are within the optic, the more places there are for the light to scatter and split. Sometimes a flare’s contours, which can tend to be roughly hexagonal, mimic the shape of the aperture opening within the shutter. Many people guard against flares simply by using a lens hood or by being careful not to shoot directly into light, and photographers are all over the road as to whether the effect is annoying or artistic. Flares are as old as cameras themselves, and they happen for much the same reasons on digital gear as on analog equipment.

DreamHauler, 2020

The ironic part, which has grown out of several generations of digital post-production, is that what was once regarded as a “mistake” is now one of the most common tools in nearly every editing suite on the market. Like vignetting at the corners, graininess (for that gritty, low-fi look!) and other things that used to be regarded as imperfections, flaring is just as likely to be added into a photo after it’s shot, for an “artifact” that has been called everything from “authentic” to “dramatic” by many a game designer or A-list movie director. J.J. Abrams loves the effect so much that he has used it in his Star Trek reboots, as well as the film Super 8, to both cheers and jeers. Michael Bay also adds flare, mostly to his CGI processes. The search for the look has even led several filmmakers to swap out recently designed lenses, which lessen the look, to old optical glass, that has more of it.

The image you see here, just so there’s no debate, featured flares which were (a) created in the moment and are (b) a total accident. I actually shot about a half dozen frames of this particularly enchanted truck, and chose this one for the keeper when I saw how it (quite by chance) enhanced the mood of what I was after. I assure you that I am far too un-hip to have conceived of this effect in advance of my shoot. So, in other words, I got this digitally on-demand look the analog way…that is, because I didn’t know quite what I was doing. However, if it ever wins any awards, I can alway say that I meant to do it that way, hee hee. In photography we deal in truth, lies, and a lot of stuff that lives between the two poles. This one comes from that mystery middle.

Or maybe it’s gremlins, I dunno.

 

CONDITIONAL WELCOMES

By MICHAEL PERKINS

Now that I’m alone again/  I can’t stop breaking down again/ The simplest things set me off again/ And take me to that place/  Where I can’t find my brave face—-Paul McCartney

2020, IN ADDITION TO BEING THE EMOTIONAL EQUIVALENT of a meteor shower for many of us, has also packed a lot of cruel ironies into the overall mix of horrors. Observe; electronically, we are closer to some than we have ever been, while also being geographically more distant; we can’t go out for our favorite foods, but have connected with our inner sourdough baker; and, most poignant, to me at least, we have seen photographs exalted from random markers of time and place to essential messengers, proxies to represent us to those we love.

Pictures of the holidays pack an extra dollop of emotional freight in a good year. In a horrific one, everything that comes out of a camera is weighted with extra heft. Everyday tasks become art; mundane events are promoted to major milestones. That means that seasonal images, already doing a lot of heavy lifting, impart, in pandemic times, even greater import. Things are both sad and happy, hopeful and despairing. Pictures measure both joy and loss in ever more profound ways.

Take the simple idea of the front entrances to our homes. During the holidays, we decorate them to amplify the concept of home, safety. And yet, this year, the welcoming message is a hollow one. The front door is not so much an invitation as the final barrier between the outside world and the people within, who must, for this time, barricade themselves behind it. The bells, balls, tinsel and lights say, “Come on in” even as our wiser minds tell us to say “Stay away.” The third-degree burn of this irony has made me reduce my usual wide tide of seasonal shots to almost exclusively focus on front doors. The warmth they project remains visually unchanged from that of years past. It’s our own emotional context that makes us feel the pictures differently. They are images of conditional welcomes, as the entire holiday season, as it must, becomes one big exercise in delayed gratification.

As with so many other things, photographs have become repurposed in the Year Of The Plague. How could they not? And yet, as My Happy Home is temporarily recast as My Brave Face, the photographs we take during the final stretch of this global nightmare may, in time, be among our most prized possessions, because half of “bittersweet” is still, after all, “sweet”.

THE MAKING OF THE MOMENT

The Kodak Girl (n the distance) sends an urgent message to St. Nick on how to provide the perfect Christmas in this early 20th-century ad.

By MICHAEL PERKINS (author of the new image collection FIAT LUX, available through NormalEye Press)

EASTMAN KODAK WAS THE FIRST COMPANY to truly democratize photography, taking it from a tinkerer’s hobby or the domain of the studio professional and placing it in the hands of the average consumer. A streamlined process for producing modestly-priced, easily operated cameras, as well as the introduction of roll film and standardized processing, made it possible for anyone to capture memories on a reasonable budget. To do this quickly, Kodak, well before 1900, also became one of the first and best early forces in the use of mass marketing. And one of the biggest pillars in the foundation of that effort was Christmas.

For the near decade that The Normal Eye has been in business, we have always dedicated one annual post to the nostalgia and pure brilliance of Kodak’s Christmas ad campaigns. Being a company that fostered the creation of indelible memories (the well-known “Kodak Moment”), the creators of the Brownie camera sold us not merely the means of making pictures, but the motivation for doing so, capitalizing on the special sentiment that permeates the holiday season. The question was not “should I buy a camera?” but “why aren’t you already taking pictures as fast as you can squeeze a shutter?”. The Eastman company achieved the ultimate goal for a manufacturer, that is, creating a market that had never existed before and inventing the means to fill said market. Using full color photographs in their magazine ads in the early 20th century, an era which was still typified by painted or drawn illustrations, the company showed people using their cameras to freeze-frame both special occasions and everyday events, all the while reinforcing the idea that going so was easy and fun.

And when it came to Christmas specifically, Kodak, well before 1920, developed two key ambassadors to drive home the message. First was the pre-cheesecake pin-up known only as The Kodak Girl, who was shown clicking off memories in a variety of settings, and featured on calendars, packaging, and roll-outs for new products. As a back-up, the company became one of the first to enlist Santa Claus himself as a pitchman, which even the wizards at Coca-Cola would not do until 1930. The combination was the stuff of dreams, as well as of profits. Kodak cameras were not merely another element of the Big Day; they were a guarantee that the Big Day would be a success. A great holiday was a nice thing, but a great holiday caught in pictures was on another level entirely.

Wish fulfillment, or the possibility thereof, is so woven into the appeal of photography, that, once cameras and film were standardized and simplified, the hobby really didn’t need a big nudge to become a worldwide habit, as it remains to this day. But, as they say in the ad biz, you must always be Asking For The Order, and lots of our hard-wired desire to Say It In Pictures was inextricably linked, from the earliest days of the medium, to the consumption of products. “Open Me First”, the tag on Kodak gifts asked in over a generation of seasonal ads, and we certainly did. The message was, and remains, you can’t call it a life event until you’ve started taking pictures of it. That is both photography’s curse, and its blessing.

 

TIDINGS OF COMFORT

By MICHAEL PERKINS (author of the new image collection FIAT LUX, available from NormalEye Press)

PHOTOGRAPHS ARE TRUSTEES OF MEMORY, AND, AS SUCH, can recall either clear testimony about the past as it actually appeared, or emotional echoes of how it felt. How you choose to depict something in the moment, whether real or abstract, will color the reliving of that event or thing in the future. In which case, will the photograph match your inner record of the experience? And is that experience sharp, as in a super-precise lens, or soft, as in the gauzy reverie of a dream?

Some photographs are made with a certain “emotional filter” in mind. Take the most personal, memory-driven events within our lives, such as the holidays. Can we really see clearly into the past as it exists in our mind? Does it seem softened or blurred by time? And if that’s how our memory renders things, is it accurate to depict such events, in the moment, in that hazy fashion?

It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like…(2020)

I tend to interpret things that have a lot of sentimental heft in a way that resembles the look of memory to me…that is, softened, velvetized if you will. The hard edges and strong contrasts assigned to more reportorial photography seem too harsh when I’m cruising Christmas shop windows, and so my eye/mind/heart trusts a more diffuse approach. This is not revolutionary, of course, as many seasonal entertainments, from greeting cards to television favorites, are often rendered in a fairy-tale light and resolution. Can it become a cliche? Certainly. For me, however, such outward creations of holiday spirit comport perfectly with the movies that play inside my head, and so I really do dial back the “real” aspect on such  occasions. The image seen here has plenty of definition, and so diminishing its sharpness can add to the picture even as something is “subtracted.”

This is part of the intention you set for photographs. I hate the word “capture”, because it implies that you merely froze what was in front of you without interpretation or comment, and what fun is that? Reality is often insufficient in the way it plays to our feelings, and art of any kind can sand away its rougher edges to create a custom feel for the heart. Some messages should be shouted, while others are more hearable in a whisper. Photographs only begin with the mere recording of light, but, if we’re lucky, they end with something truly personal.

ADVENTURES IN THE REEL WORLD

 

Model “A”, the first version of the classic View-Master viewer (1939), which originally opened like a clamshell for loading of the picture reel. The scene change lever (with wire spring attached) is on the inside back of the unit.

By MICHAEL PERKINS (author of the new image collection FIAT LUX, available now from NormalEye Press)

 

IN 1939, THIS STRANGE CLAMSHELL-SHAPED OBJECT sneaked onto the photographic market as a souvenir of the New York World’s Fair, offering itself as a thoroughly modern version of the 19th-century stereopticon. Instead of a rectangular card, the gizmo contained a disc, inside of which were sandwiched seven matching pairs of color transparencies, one for each eye of a stereoscopically-abled human, and which, when held up to any light source, allowed the brain to blend the two slightly different versions of the subject into a convincing illusion of depth. Model “A” of the contraption, called a “View-Master” by its inventors, would, over the next eight year, allow armchair adventurers to travel the world without leaving their living rooms, seeing in each reel, as the advertisement went, “seven more wonders of the world.”

At this writing (December 2020), those ubiquitous little discs, about 1.5 billion of them so far, could easily circle said globe several dozen times, with the View-Master brand growing over the generations to include lighted viewers, talking viewers, models shaped like Mickey Mouse, Batman and Barbie, both two and three-dimensional projectors, study guides for surgical anatomy, sighting practice for WWII fighter pilots, and, by the second decade of the 21st century, even virtual reality headpieces linked to phone app content. The brainchild of postcard magnate Edwin Mayer and photographer William Gruber grew from primarily scenic travel titles sold in serious camera shops to one of the biggest purveyors of affordable kiddie entertainment, starting with View-Master’s first contract with Disney in the 1950’s and continuing with every major cartoon and movie tie-in since then, marketed mostly through major toy chains.

Over the years, the company passed through the hands of several corporations, from the original Sawyer’s optical company to GAF, then Mattel, Fisher-Price, and other firms major and minor. The venture into virtual reality of recent years, sadly, seems to have spelled the end for the product, which is, alas, finally too slow and low-tech for the world of 2020. As recently as last year, there was talk (and only talk) of a feature film based on VM, based on the proposition that, as with The Lego Movie, every classic toy has a big-screen blockbuster lurking inside it, if only you look hard enough. Turns out…no.

But I must shed at least a quiet tear at View-Master’s demise, given that it was the product’s seductively scenic “packets” that initially excited me about the idea of making my own pictures. Those cramped little squares taught me a lot about what to include or exclude in a composition for minimum clutter and maximum narrative impact. Decades later, I even managed to scavenge a View-Master stereo camera (yes, there were such things) and a Stereo-Matic 500 projector, allowing me to come full circle, both shooting and projecting my own reels in 3-D (thus pre-paying my Geek Insurance for the next foreseeable lifetime). More importantly, the dozens of VM shooters (most of them uncredited in their lifetimes) who covered everything from the Grand Canyon to the moon landing over 81 years informed the way I approach the very idea of photography. The lessons were simple; make something beautiful; tell a story; and keep looking around the next corner, for, who knows, seven more wonders of the world.

THROUGH THE SIDE DOOR

Scarlet Starburst, 2020. f/8, 1/500 sec., ISO 100, 22.3mm.

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS (author of the new image collection FIAT LUX, available through NormalEye Press)

ACROSS HISTORY, HALF OF THE WRITING ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHY seems to be about the ongoing debate over which is more crucial, equipment or ingenuity. Some fervently believe that better gear inevitably leads to better pictures, while others point to the fact that million-dollar images often emerge from modest machinery, when backed by a trained eye. I have been shooting for too long to favor extreme, either/or arguments, as my experience makes a good case for both viewpoints. There have been times when a particular level of technical tool has saved my bacon, but there have also been many instances in which the camera, by itself, would have merely got in my way without my resorting to improvised workarounds designed to compensate for its shortcomings.

One of the things I do to boost color and maximize contrast is to deliberately under-expose. It’s the cheapest and easiest way to dramatically change the game at a moment’s notice, a nostalgic nod to the days of Kodachrome and other early color films that would often be too slow for effective captures unless you were really spry with your field calculations. Thing is, what others regarded in some shots as “too dark” would, to me, be moody, romantic, even mysterious. What others called “balanced” light I often considered mediocre, and so, as I have travelled through time, I have retained my affection for the chiaroscuro look. It simplifies compositions and jacks the richness of hues. Thing is, I have to be mindful of what camera I’m using at the time, and how it can or can’t readily render the look I want.

Case in point: the Nikon Coolpix P900, which took the shot you see here. This is a so-called “superzoom” camera designed to extend one’s telephoto reach to a ridiculous extreme, and was purchased primarily for birdwatching. Its zoom amounts to something like 83x magnification, and, while it can deliver surprisingly sharp detail at insane distances, it hampers the camera’s performance in other ways. Since so much light is lost when they are extended fully, the manufacturers of superzooms “cap” their minimum aperture at around f/8. Want to shoot at f/11 or higher? Use a different camera.

Or.

The fun thing about exposure is that there are several ways to get there, and so, if you can’t stop your iris down far enough to suit yourself, you can always ramp up your shutter speed, which is what I’ve done here. In a typical shot, the poinsettia would have been backed by more leaves, the edge of a pot, foil wrapping and other clutter, but at the P900’s smallest aperture, f/8, and a shutter speed of 1/500 in early morning light, the red leaves become the exclusive star. Early direct light in Phoenix, Arizona would also have generated a complete blowout of any texture or detail in the structure of the leaves, and, while much of them remain hot in this shot, some vein detail is suggested here, especially when the edge of a leaf falls off into blackness. The result is a genuine fake of 64 ASA Kodachrome, achieved largely by accident in my youth, now purposely chosen in my….dotage.

Whatever equipment you use, you may find it necessary to try to occasionally outwit the thing, to, if you like, enter through the side door, if only to keep the thing from giving you the picture it assumes you want. Don’t buy into the manufacturers’ hype. Between a photographer and a camera, only one of them can think. Hint: it isn’t the camera.

THE MERENESS OF REALITY

By MICHAEL PERKINS (author of the new image collection “FIAT LUX”, available through NormalEye Press)

 

LIKE PHOTOGRAPHS THEMSELVES, THE REMARKS INTENDED AS COMPLIMENTS for photographs are often crippled by cliche, as we struggle to appreciate not only what an image looks like but what we believe it ought to look like. “It’s so realistic” and “looks just like a postcard” are two of my favorites, along with “nice color” or “you must have a really good camera”, but one of our well-worn go-to’s is, to me, head and shoulders above the rest: “the picture looks better than the real place/person/thing”. In that one sentence is the entire tug-of-war our minds wage between the province of the photographer and that of the painter.

In a painting, we know that fallible/biased human hands are not rendering “reality”, but a subjective amplification of it. Who knows if the trees were really that green, or the mountain that drenched in sun, and who cares? We stipulate that we are looking at an interpretation. There is no accusation of manipulation or fakery, since the painter’s perspective is baked into the process of painting. He doesn’t have to add, “at least that’s how I see it” because we all accept those terms of engagement.

The camera, however, is quite another thing.

Upon The Field Of Honor, 2020. f/1.8, 1/20 sec., ISO 200, 50mm.

Despite over nearly two hundred-plus years that demonstrate how very subjective photography is, we have a hard-wired reflex to see the camera as the agent of creativity, the soulless, unerring recording instrument which is the arbiter of all that is “real”. When the personal input of the photographer, like that of the painter, is introduced, we adopt different words to judge the results, many of them unflattering. We label the picture a “trick”, a “fake”, “manipulated” and, the latest insult in the critical lexicon, “post-processed”, as if any attempt at personalizing or idealizing a view of the world is untrustworthy, non-genuine. To say a picture looks “better than the real thing” is to somehow suggest that it is something less than the real thing, not more. Certainly, some painters have been tarred with the same brush, but not to the extent that photographers typically are. In fact, photographs are, as Picasso said of art in general, “a lie that makes us realize truth”. We create images that escape the mereness of reality on the road to something more essential about the condition of being human.

My grandfather’s old chess set, pictured here, is, in reality, pretty wrecked, bearing the scars of hundreds of skirmishes with many vanquished foes. Now, I could make a photograph that depicts all that detail, and it might be engaging, even touching as a comment on the fragility of objects. But in this frame, I’m approaching the white and black armies as real combatants, using selective focus to re-visualize them as mythic stand-ins for the legions who face off in actual battles over the broad span of history. The same focus scheme is designed to render everything else around them as fuzzy, immaterial. The fight, not little pieces of wood, is the so-called”reality”, and everything around it melts into obscurity. This is a picture planned like a painting is, a deliberate as-I-see-it denial of actuality in search of a different reality….my own. Like painters, photographers are looking for a verity that is occasionally “better” or “worse” than the real thing. Because if all you want of a camera is for it slavishly to perform a recording function, like a seismograph or a thermometer, then all photographers are obsolete and need to take up a different hobby.

Like painting.

 

PARING AWAY THE BROWN SPOTS

What was originally a general scene in a cafe cropped down to a decent candid.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I’M A BIG FAN OF THE PRACTICE of distancing yourself from photographs that didn’t immediately connect with you. Some of our images just don’t register with us at first glance, however, in many cases, they can be approached with a fresh eye if you just shove them in a shoebox (digitally speaking) for a time, giving them a second hearing somewhere down the road.

Of course, once you get down that road, you may conclude that your first impression was correct, and that something in the picture was off, or just ineffective. But then there are the late-arriving miracles, the photographs that had to wait until your mind was right to reveal their best truths, eliciting some reaction like “that’s not so bad, after all.” In other words, the ones you’re now glad you didn’t delete in a fit of initial disappointment. The late bloomers.

Often I find that a simple cropping reveals that there really was a decent picture in there all the time, but that it was being eclipsed by all the extra dead space, props or distractions that were also captured in the moment. In such cases, the entire apple wasn’t rotten; it merely needed a few brown spots to be pared away. The trick is to think of cropping not as an admission of failure but as an opportunity.

Few of us have the chops to perfectly frame a great story in an instant. There are a few among us with that talent, and they are the ones enshrined in museums and textbooks. The rest of us can often capture a great picture within a larger picture, however, and in eliminating the fluff and filler we actually redeem it instead of writing it off as defective. One old-school photo editor was famous for telling his shooters to “crop ’til it hurts”, revealing his own belief that, if you kept wielding the scissors without mercy, good pictures would often be freed from the junk that surrounded them. Taking an understandable amount of ownership in our own work, we can often become overly attached to the first version of a project. We protect it like a young mother who cries the first time her baby gets his hair cut. But while great pictures are often “taken” (see earlier remark about the people in museums), many more are revealed by merely peeling away a few dead leaves.

The candid seen here retains less than 50% of the content that surrounded it, which originally included additional people and most of the interior of a good-sized cafe.  Given the chance to add all that other clutter back in, I would issue a hard “no” and be grateful for having hacked at the task until I found the real essence of the picture. You have no doubt experienced the same Christmas-morning unwrapping thrill in your own pix. We need to remember that what comes out of the camera is often just the first draft of history, and that helping the best part of it be amplified is not cheating, or “making the best of a bad situation” but staging, directing our dramas for the audience’s best experience.

THINK A, SHOOT D

Many of us don’t miss anything about analog photography except the discipline of it.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

2020’s GREAT HIBERNATION HAS FORCED US to add many arbitrary items to our “to do” lists, if for no other reason than to consume the mountains of newly available time with which we find ourselves encumbered. We know that a certain number of our new daily tasks are what bureaucrats call “make-work” projects, but the therapeutic value of adding real energy to even “fake” goals is indisputable. And for photographers, those projects can involve a return to things we used to do but came to consider ourselves as “done with.”

For me, that’s meant a revisitation of film, not so much for any superior aspect it might have over digital shooting, but as a refresher in the use of habits I’ve held longest as a photographer. First; it’s true that, given the technical advances and conveniences introduced over the years, there is nothing left in analog that I can’t do almost unilaterally better and faster in digital. Nothing. However, from a planning or sensibility viewpoint, there certainly are mindsets that analog photography confers upon your process. As a consequence, I try to balance the discipline of working with film with the ease of shooting in digital…to think A and shoot D, if you like.

In film, you were working with a finite work medium. Your camera could only take 24 or 36 images at a time without being hungry for more “fuel”. You paid for each new dose of that fuel, and then you paid again to have it processed, in order to see if you succeeded or failed. Worse, there were no “do-overs” built into the system, which meant that you paid real money even for your mistakes. This automatically slowed down your picture-taking process and taught you the habit of planning purposely for a set outcome. Anyone who is too young to have ever shot film has no direct experience with the extra steps in metering, measuring and composing that accompanied every shot. Everything took four moves or more. Additional lighting was cumbersome and often unreliable. Worse, some kinds of film were more unforgiving of mistakes than others, and they usually came at a premium price. And then there’s the risk of not even being able to get the camera to give you what you want. The analog frame seen here, for example, took me five full minutes to shoot, and I can still find about a dozen things wrong with it. But I can inform my digital work with the thought process it took me to make this imperfect analog image.

So far, I’m doing a great job of unselling everyone on analog for all time. But in an age in which there was no immediate results for your shots, the exercise of planning and waiting before shooting had a payoff. You seldom shot anything you didn’t care about. You were slower, more deliberate about shoots, and tended to pre-plan them, to engineer all the failure out of a picture well before you took it. You edited yourself in advance, because it cost too damned much to, as in the digital era, just crank off thirty variations of every subject and hope one of them worked out. Am I asking anyone to go out and buy a roll of film and load it into Grandpa’s Hasselblad? Not at all, and that’s not even the point. It’s far more important to shoot with analog’s special brand of intentionality, even within the comfy confines of digital. As I said earlier, think A and shoot D. Maybe an exercise in which you shoot your next, say, thirty-six images on 100% manual settings, with no re-takes on any of them and no allowing yourself to go beyond that arbitrary number of frames, might be valuable. Or not. We no longer need to put up with much of the drudgery of film, but we might be well served to observe some of the disciplines it imposed on our work.

THE CANUTE CONUNDRUM

A street entrance that announces an address that is forever vanished.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

WE BELIEVE WE UNDERSTAND HISTORY IN ITS ESSENCE  because some version of it has been handed down to us across the ages, but, as we grow wiser, we know that there are many versions of What Really Happened, each filtered through the agenda/biases of the storyteller. Many of us have at least heard, for example, of the 12th-century King Canute, and may dimly recall a story about his going down to the seashore and foolishly ordering the waves to stop to demonstrate his imperial power. In examining the legend further, however, it seems that he may have gone through the exercise just to illustrate for his subjectsthe limits of his powers. Both versions make great stories. Both drive home the concept of the futility of our struggle against nature, and time.

As I write this, I have received word that the old building where I began my professional career is about to be torn down. Aside from being the physical site of events that pertained to me particularly, the joint has no real reason to be preserved, or saved. It’s architecturally insignificant and aesthetically bland, not to mention its physical decay after lying empty for many years. The project which will stand in its place is likewise lackluster in the extreme, but it will at least be useful and profitable in a way that the old hulk can never be again. And so it goes.

It’s been so long since I walked the halls of 22 South Young Street, Columbus, Ohio (which still bears a few stamps of the call letters for WCOL radio, my alma mater) that taking a tour of it now would only rupture the delicate membrane in which my memories are preserved. I have few photographic records of the time I spent there, as can happen when you’re busier living your life than documenting it. The only images of any recent vintage I have were taken about four years ago and are limited to a few exterior shots, which do what photographs do…document that, like Canute, we are powerless to hold back the sea, and more foolish than powerless in even making the attempt. Sometimes I think that the ultimate “memory” shot for all occasions, designed as a kind of universal symbol, would merely be an image of sand sifting through fingers. Plus or minus a few personal particulars, photographs of things that were are mostly illustrative within the mind. The camera, a dumb box essentially, can only see things as they are, not as they were or might have been.

Still, we cling to these pallid echoes and paltry souvenirs of our lives, gleaning at least minor comfort from them. Some days that’s enough. Other days, the magic fails us. As old King Canute, I often fantasize that he might actually have gone down to the shore more than once, always thinking, en route, “maybe this time it will work.” All too sad, yes, but also, all too human.

MYSTERIES SOLVED AND UNSOLVED

By MICHAEL PERKINS

STREET PHOTOGRAPHY IS OCCASIONALLY DISPARAGED as some kind of intrusion, the visual equivalent of picking someone’s pocket or peeping through their bedroom window. And while some shooters certainly invade, even steal, privacy from people, there are many more gentler practitioners, artists compelled by curiosity rather than predation. I think the difference between these two approaches shows in the work. At least I hope it does.

The photographic street scene is greatly altered in this Year Of The Great Hibernation. Making pictures of people is severely hampered when there are, literally, fewer full faces in view. Our choice to purposely avoid personal contact cuts that crop down yet again. And without faces, the street is only, well, the street. Faces provide photographers with that divine mix of solved and unsolved mystery. It is, after all, our inability to absolutely plumb the inner thoughts of others with our puny cameras that make our little acts of emotional eavesdropping so addictive.

The Conference, 2017

In recent months, I have been giving myself a refresher course on what it is about street work that “works” for me. I keep coming back to images very similar to the one you see here, the instinctual capture of a moment on a pier in Ventura, California some three years ago. Something about the exchange between the woman and the two males continues to fascinate me. Maybe it’s because the woman, whose face is the only one of the three in clear view, is in such a position of dominance. She clearly seems to be in charge of whether the conversation continues, and on whose terms. She looks, at once, impatient, engaged, weary, cold, contemptuous, even maternal. I can’t nail her down, and that’s intriguing. The males are almost certainly boys, or are at least servile in the way that only boys can be in the presence of an adult woman. Either way, their energy is greatly diminished in comparison to hers. The picture does, then, what street work does best…at least for me, in that it starts conversation, but cannot end it.

Of course, some street photography is not “about” anything but itself, that is, a random momentary arrangement of props and shapes. And it would be a mistake to label such images as any less or more “meaningful” just because no clear intent is implied in them. A sunset is, for some, symbolic of many things, but for others, it’s just a picture of a sunset. As to whether it’s somehow wrong to spy on the feelings or interactions of passersby with the intent of trapping them inside a box, I’ll leave that to the philosophers. Me, I’m thinking about the grand parade of lives passing before me, which I regard as the grandest feast since the invention of Hot Pockets…

CHROMEDOMES

This color original is lovely, but the multiple hues on the water seem to fight with the duck for attention.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THERE IS FAIRLY SOLID CONSENSUS, among those who teach the basics of photographic composition, that the path to success lies in reducing a picture to its simplest terms. Removal of extraneous distraction, proper placement of a subject within a frame, depth-of-field calculations…all these techniques work toward a common goal; to help the eye engage the photo efficiently, to lock onto its essential story without being confused or deflected toward something less important. Often a cleaner composition is just a matter of cropping, or merely limiting the number of elements contending for the viewer’s attention.

But there is one approach to basic composition that may not be instinctive to us all, and that’s the role that color plays in our pictures.

Color is the current instinctive default for most of our photos. It took a long time for it to be technically capable of taking that mantle from monochrome, which was, by necessity, the palette that shooters painted on for over a century. Color is seductive, and seems like a more “realistic” medium for our very personal universes of family and friends. However, in the composition of any picture, it must be reckoned with as another object in the frame, no less than a tree or a cloud. It is one more thing in there that demands our notice, and, for many images, it certainly earns that attention. However, color can become the message of a picture, not just the way the picture is rendered, drawing off the viewer’s eye in exactly the same way as extra props, extraneous scenery or other clutter can.

Neutralizing the reflective hues on the water can make the center subject a bit more prominent.

Some would argue that black and white is more nuanced and subtle in the rendering of emotional directness, or texture, or contrast when compared to color, and yet some of us think of monochrome as somehow incomplete or unfinished. Try telling that to several dozen Pulitzer winners, some of whom, admittedly, worked before color was practical (and therefore not a real option), along with others who continued to choose b&w even after it became the minority medium. And this is not about unilaterally choosing sides, forever pitting the Kodak Tr-X crowd in a pitched battle against the Fuji Velvia cadre. It’s only about choosing the right tool for every picture, and not getting so locked into the global color default that you refuse to peer into the opposite camp. I continue to master every shot in color to this day, but a full fifth of my final output consists of mono conversions, with modern post-processing giving me every bit as much control over the results as in the old darkroom days (as seen in the illustrations). The best course, I believe, is to form the habit of looking at all your pictures both ways. Often, you will just stick with the color original, because it works. And other times you will play in the other playground because, for some pictures, that works.

Color is an object within your pictures, no less than a mountain or a chair. Think of it as another piece of visual furniture fighting for dominance in the frame, and deal with it accordingly. Monochrome is not photography’s simpler, poorer step-kid. Sometimes, it can be the pride of the family.

SEMI-MANUAL

Yeah, I got your “documentation” right here, buddy…

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ONE OF THE BEST INDICATIONS THAT YOUR TECH CUSTOMER IS, er, of a certain age is when you hear the question, “where’s the user manual?”, a phrase which registers, these days as, well, quaint. For photographers, the acceleratingly intuitive nature of camera gear, especially in the post-film era, may just mean that the designers have done their best to obviate the manual to as great a degree as possible.

This makes sense. Cameras used to require a lot of explaining just to make them work at all, and user manuals reflected this. The message was simple: unless you follow our prescribed steps, you can really louse things up. In an age that predated modern givens like autofocus, exposure compensation, or aperture priority, the user was responsible for everything involved in the making of a picture. You felt responsible as well, since you yourself had to deliberately set up anything you wanted your camera to do. There were no defaults, and the camera would not assume to know what you wanted.

Fast-forward to now, then, when, in taking delivery of your new camera, you are not usually taking delivery of the full “user’s manual”. It exists, but mostly online as a pdf. What’s actually in your box is a mini-quickie “startup guide”, about twenty pages of basics to allow you to operate the main functions of the toy. Curious about the rest? Go online. The secret behind the Amazing Shrinking Manual is simply that manufacturers don’t believe you will read the full manual ever, ever, anyway. A recent article on Learningstream.com, aimed at designers and marketers, even made a list of seven reasons why consumers would rather swallow arsenic than read the manual. They are; 1. They don’t have time; 2. They are lazy. 3. They “already know everything”. 4. They aren’t too bright. 5. They think “common sense” is enough. 6. They would rather call a help line. 7. The instructions are poorly written.

I would posit an eighth reason that people don’t read the full camera manual anymore; they will likely never use even half of the deluxe functions and add-on tricks that the camera has on offer. All cameras function largely the same way, and making a picture in the most basic fashion is remarkably consistent across brands. The things that give those brands their competitive edge is in the add-ons, the extra options that have been crammed into their chassis. Look through the documentation for your own camera and ask yourself, honestly, if there are tricks the thing will perform that you never thought to ask for, don’t use, or wouldn’t use in a million years. The simple truth; you don’t need a two-hundred page document to tell you how to take a picture. The bulk of the manual is for the “sometime” functions and exotic accents, while the majority of us can get up and running with only the start-up pamphlet. For pete’s sake, you get no documentation at all inside the box of the camera you’ll probably use most in your life…the one inside your phone. The manufacturers for cels have already taken things to the next level, assuming that consumers are not only bored but annoyed at anything that slows the taking of pictures. And since mistakes are free, and easy to fix, who can say they’re wrong?

One thing I do think is profound is that designers are constantly shrinking the space between our desire to make a picture and the delivery of said picture into our hands. It can certainly be argued that anything that gets out from in between the camera and the user is an overall good. As to the other stuff, take the advice my father gave me every time I asked him an annoying question: go look it up.

NEGOTIABLE

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ONE OF THE FIRST “COMMANDMENTS” that were once sacrosanct to newbie photographers was the concept of sharpness. We were taught to worship the resolution quotients of all lenses and to choose them based on arcane charts and bench tests that professed to certify perfection. Such data made us look askance at the glass we currently owned and to slobber over the newer, crisper glass that shone forth from the catalogues (or websites). Many of us broke the bank in this pursuit, abandoning perfectly fine lenses that didn’t live up to someone else’s holy absolute, chasing the little red wagon of sharpness right down the street to bankruptcy court.

Escape, 2020

But as it turns out, sharpness is only a must for some kinds of photographs, and (listen closely), only if we say so. Museums around the world are bursting with life-changing images that fall far below that arbitrary high water mark for resolution set by God-knows-what-secret-society, and, if you examine the whole range of images you personally regard as your “keepers” there will be compelling pictures within that stack that don’t pass the sharpness fantasy…..and yet work, and make their arguments powerfully and elegantly. Leaning too hard on any one commandment in photography, whether it be sharpness or exposure or composition, leads you away from spontaneity and into stultification. Work that has only to meet some arbitrary technical standard to be qualified as art can, of course, never aspire to be art at all.

The best path to satisfying photographs is to trust yourself in the moment, to hear the voice that says that it’s time to snap the shutter and go for broke, damn the results and the critics. The shot you see here is, yes, technically “imperfect”, as it was shot a bit slow for the speedy little bird’s sudden departure. My original plan was to cook up something poetic as he placidly sat on a perch, obligingly posing for my convenience. But he is a bird, and has a bird’s priorities and doesn’t give a ripe damn about mine, and so off he went. Now, I could waste a lot of space here rationalizing the whole result and saying that, of course, I planned it all along, only I didn’t. Like some of my other favorites pictures, it contains a generous kiss of good luck from the camera gods, and that’s okay. I could fret over the fact that if I’d had a faster, sharper lens, the bird’s body would be frozen in perfect register, but I’m not going to. I love it when a plan works out, but I also love it when something just happens.

Today’s emerging photographers have a much more relaxed attitude toward “rules” than we older shooters, and that, on balance, is a welcome change. It explains the entire “low-fi” and lomography movements which value shooting from the hip and the heart with minimal forethought, something that consciously chooses emotional verity over technical imperfection. And why not? What harm to bring more kinds of voices into the conversation? As I get older, I am more grateful for the choices that are negotiable, more likely to be labeled as “sometimes try” rather than “never do”. For a guy who can’t even manage to eat two consecutive hot dogs with the exact same condiments, I find that it’s a better way to, er, fly….

EITHER / OR, EITHER WAY

By MICHAEL PERKINS

 

CERTAINLY, PHOTOGRAPHY IS PARTLY ABOUT LIGHT, AND EQUIPMENT, AND TECHNICAL MASTERY. However, after all those means are applied, the only determinant of the ends of all our energies comes from human choices. Arguments within the mind of the photographer about what “belongs” in a picture. How to convince the viewer that it belongs. How to apply all the means to make that information compelling, or universal.

It’s knowing what to say “yes” to, but, just as crucially, it’s about being able to say no to every other option, and being prepared to live with your decision. Of course, deciding what to put in an image is not, literally, a matter of life and death, as a choice of career, mate, or philosophy might be, but it is a very visual demonstration of what choice entails. Because, when you choose something, in a picture or in a life path, you automatically unchoose everything else. There is no way, in art in life in general, to have it all.

But better voices, voices far wiser than mine, have already spoken brilliantly of this process. One, in particular, has been considered by many to be the final word on the subject, so today it serves as my own picture’s caption:

Robert Frost / The Road Not Taken 
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Make good choices. Make your choices.
Take the path. Take the picture. 

 

CAESURA

Nullified Nursery, 2020

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE WORLD’S ACCUMULATED ARCHIVE OF PHOTOGRAPHY is largely an inventory of the vanished. Some of these subjects have an abstract quality that allows them to survive specific eras, but many photos are, in fact, testimony to things that are, simply, no more. Some of these records are accidental, since we mostly turn our lenses on things and people that are active factors in our daily lives, giving little thought to how antique they will appear in just a few years’ time. Sometimes, we mark the departure of things on purpose, shooting the occasional deserted factory or abandoned church. We chronicle the end of our worlds wherever we detect it. We snap when things have stopped.

But there is another kind of stopping which defines much of our life at the close of 2020; the temporary kind, the suspension of normal rhythms, symbolized by empty schoolyards, locked buildings, places that will be, as the signs promise, re-opening soon. Our “closed for the duration” cities echo old newsreels from the Great Depression, which show boarded-up mills, vacant stores, and idled farms as symbols of failure, despair. Photographically speaking, there is something poignant about looking into spaces that were designed to hum and teem with life that are, for the moment, forced into silence. Teachers in recent interviews have pined for the noise and confusion of the classroom, while city dwellers who thought they’d never live long enough to “have a little peace around here” now walk deserted streets with unease. You, like myself, have probably had occasion to document the desolate places in your own neighborhoods, places not closed forever, but closed until whenever, which, in some ways is lonelier. In the above image, what could be more upside down than a greenhouse, a building literally created to nurture life, being placed in lockdown?

Life, like water, seeks its own level, and as the world collectively holds its breath, we find ourselves anticipating the next great sigh, that easing off of breath that means that window shades can be raised, lights can switch back on, and doors can swing open. We know that life after wartime is inevitable. Until then, we document the emptiness, because, in time, those pictures, too will impart their lessons.

 

SOUL-VENIRS

By MICHAEL PERKINS

DEPENDING ON WHEN YOU FIRST READ THIS POST, the events of The Horror Year 2020 may well already have sealed the fate of the establishment I write about today. The perishability of current events is one of the reasons that, over the last decade, I have almost completely kept “news” items out of the pages of The Normal Eye. Such stories age worse than limburger in the hot sun, and I have mostly chosen to address the eternal questions that affect photography, those universal struggles that occur in every age, regardless of what’s on the front page on any given day.

The Strand Bookstore bargain section, NYC, 2019.

But part of photography is always about that very perishability, the race to document or capture things before they vanish beneath the tides of time. And so I find myself calling attention to what is, at this moment, a poignant by-product of the Horror Year. On the surface, it’s just about the potential closing of a bookstore, hardly worth a ripple in the tragic tsunami of business failures and bankruptcies that are the persistent drumbeat of our current time. On another level, it’s about one of the most familiar and venerable of bookstores anywhere in America, the Strand in New York City, an establishment whose very existence symbolizes survival. Once part of a glorious 44-store district in the city known as Book Row, The Strand, at age 93, is the last man standing, its 2.5 million volumes serving as not merely a commercial concern but a community center, a cultural touchstone in the life of Manhattanites. Under the care of Nancy Bass Wyden, the granddaughter of the founder, the Strand, in this Season of the Plague, has crawled through the first months of the pandemic with some federal help, but, at this writing, it faces nothing short of extinction, and just this week, in October of 2020, the store has posted appeals to current and former customers around the world…a desperate S.O.S. that simply says, if you love us, save us. Within twenty-four hours of the story going public, the store’s website was so flooded with responses that it crashed.

And there my crystal ball goes dark. At the time of this writing, I can’t predict whether you, the someday reader, are smiling because the Strand has been saved or shedding a quiet tear at its passing. The one reason I felt compelled to cite a fast- moving news story at all in this forum is that it reminds me why we make pictures of things in the first place. Because they close. They fade. They burn. They fall to enemy bombs. To floods. To negligence. To our own failed memories. Photographs are one of the only hedges against the dread onslaught of temporal decay. And they themselves are also subject to that rot, becoming lost, left behind, forgotten. Beyond mere “souvenirs” of lost times, they are soul-venirs, testaments of times ago. For this reason, I went rooting this week through my old images of the Strand from the last twenty years. None of them are masterpieces, but all of them are markers, headstones for a time, and a condition, and a way of life, not only for New York but for your town, my town. Time is fleeting. Therefore make pictures. Sometimes, as Yogi Berra famously said, “nostalgia ain’t what it used to be”, but even a smudged shadow of history may someday be all we’ve got. Better to grab a box and go shadow-catching.

COLLISIONS OF CONVENIENCE

By MICHAEL PERKINS


UNLIKELY JUXTAPOSITIONS are the very essence of photography. We use the camera to extract the mood from one time of day and paste it over the atmosphere of another. We put light in places where once was only darkness. We take the colors of joy and superimpose them over somber scenes. We shove the past up against the present and force the two of them to become BBFs. And so, as picture makers, we should be comfortable when elements that seem to have nothing in common co-exist comfortably within a single image.

That said, this picture, which pretty much fell into my lap last year, feels very much like the kind of improvisation that informs the re-imagining of practically every rite and routine right now, rather than a “fun” idea from 2019. That is, in the present state of affairs, observers might understandably react to, say, a wedding rehearsal inside a bookstore with a big, “um, sure, why the hell not?” In this way, the great hibernation has made more of us think like, well, photographers.

Here’s why: shoot enough photos and you will inevitably become more limber in your idea of what fits or doesn’t fit within a single frame. Quite simply, the randomness of life will force you to look at seemingly exclusive realities and admit that, yes, they actually do justify each other in your final composition.

And just as so many non-shooters have learned, in plague times, to accommodate plans “B”, “C”, “D”, photographers must stay in the game, stay loose, and conclude that, yes, all things considered, holding a wedding in a bookstore is a pretty dope idea.

FROM EYE TO DOCUMENT

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE UNIQUE BLEND OF TECHNICAL AND MENTAL PROCESSES that combines to form the phenomenon of photography is as real, and as elusive, as smoke. Real, because it results in a physical transfer of information from eye to document. Elusive, because, like smoke, photographs waft and curl in different contours with each and every image.

The making of a photograph is forever thrilling because it is an attempt to make something purely mental cohere into a tangible object. It’s a tantalizing dream that ends in a frustrating compromise, something pure that often enters the real world hobbled by impurities. And yet it’s the flawed part of this process that makes it irresistible.

If the Magic Picture Box had actually been able to reproduce reality, as many feared at its introduction, it would have long since lost its allure, and would offer no more romance than a seismograph or any other mere recording instrument. But something different happened instead.

Instead of the camera being reliable as a mirror of “the truth”, the very imperfectIon of its nature made it a messenger for “my truth”….a machine that must bend to the whims of its user. That’s why even the best camera is only as good as the eye behind it. It’s not that “the camera can’t lie”, but that it can neither lie nor tell the truth without human intention steering it.

I offer these scribblings as an answer to the oft-asked question, “why do you love it so much?”, not really to convert the unconvinced as to remind the devoted; because even people who make pictures constantly can occasionally forget what a miracle we help oversee.

 

 

 

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