the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

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THE OBSTACLE COURSE

Toys ‘R’ Us…and can be yours…if the price is right.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

BOTH IN THESE PAGES AND IN MANY OTHERS, FROM PEOPLE far wiser than I, a very basic recommendation for photographers has been to choose the simplest camera that you can for what you want to shoot, rather than purchase a high-tech toy loaded with extras that you don’t currently use. Makes sense; get as many features as you actually need to get the job done, but don’t fall for the old con that your next best picture will only come once you buy your next, better, costlier camera. This advice is not based on some rugged manliness on my part, but on the simple truth that you need personal development far more than you need state-of-the-art (or break-of-the wallet) gear.

And now consider this corollary; equipment manufacturers cannot survive if you only buy simple, efficient cameras. They can only profit by selling you everything that comes with; the cases, the filters, the extra lenses, the solar-powered cookie oven that ties into your USB port. The reality for the legendary Eastman Kodak Company was that, even if it made almost nothing on the sales of its cameras, all those cameras needed film pretty much forever. As for the camera companies that didn’t also own their own film factories, there was allure in selling their customers that one extra cool trick that their camera could not do all by itself. And thus came the brackets, the bolt-ons, the custom attachments, the gauges, and the meters. This “just one thing more” approach was a vital part of the analog camera market, and it has carried forward into the digital era. The camera, apparently the very same one for which you just shelled out major buckos, is, sadly, just not enough.

The image seen here is from the user’s manual for one of the first automatic SLRs of the late 1970’s. All of this stuff was available for sale for one model of one camera from one manufacturer. You will notice that this exhaustive listing of geegaws does not even include auxiliary lenses, which would probably be more crucial than, day,  #48, the battery-driven power film winder, made for those too lazy or absent-minded to wind the film on themselves (think ’70’s!). And while there may be few customers indeed who coughed up for the entire toy catalog seen here, the very fact that it exists tells us that there is a better than average chance that, if you make an “Extender FD-2XA”, someone will convince themselves that they need one.

Here’s the take-home; the rules of composition, optics and exposure have not substantially changed in the last 100 years. What changes is the elegant little tasks and tricks designed into the camera and its attendant add-ons beyond those basics. Some you need, but most you don’t. If the camera you buy does not do 75% of what you need to do all by itself, and in a few simple steps, take it back. No one ever became a better photographer by merely buying more equipment, and many have actually made their process so complicated with extra doodads that their pictures are worse. Start basic and stay there until you develop a genuine need to take an additional step, and then take it. If you only buy what you need, photography is an art, like painting. If not, it’s just a hobby, like collecting baseball cards.

INTERPRETERS AND INCHES

What Now?, 2020

By MICHAEL PERKINS

YOU’VE LIKELY EXPERIENCED IT: I call it shutter lock, the photographer’s equivalent of writer’s block. You have the subject. You have opportunity. And you certainly have motive. But the picture won’t come.

More specifically, the right picture won’t come. You’ve chosen the wrong angle. The wrong aspect. It’s lost in a sea of busy. Or it’s just…well, hiding. Your perfect shot has now become some frustrating game of Where’s Waldo? Should you move on? Reconsider? Or in Oz’ words, simply “go away and come back tomorrow”?

And then you move a few inches. You walk around your quarry and something else about it begins to speak, first in a whisper, and then, in a clear, loud  voice that says, “of course”. And you make the picture.

My recent and most stubborn case of shutter lock has been on me since the start of our Great Hibernation, a time when photographers have flooded social media with ideas for “projects”. Essays. Statements that will sum up What We’re All Going Through. And more than a few challenges to find all that Supreme Truth in a self-portrait. How is this affecting you? How has it reshaped your features, the part of your soul that seeps though haunted eyes or pursed lips? I was fascinated by that idea, of course, and why not? We all love to explore ourselves, to regard ourselves as our own True North. But I wasn’t capturing it, or at least enough of it. I was staring at a landscape that I couldn’t turn into a picture.

And then I stopped looking inward. Selfies can certainly reveal our inner dialogues, but all my own face was registering was a kind of unreadable…numbness. And so I moved about thirty inches, and she was there.

Marian is always there at my most instructive moments of clarity. She hacks through my busy clutter and lets enough air into my brain to allow me to see sense, and regain my bearings. The most wonderful thing about it is, she often doesn’t know she’s doing it. There is was, on her face, the look I was seeking, and missing, on my own. A mix of grim resolution, hope, helplessness, exhaustion. Not a look of absolute despair….more like a dead serious attempt to re-focus, to keep swimming against the tide. Suddenly her face was not only a better expression of my own journey but everyone’s. It felt universal, beyond language. In short, it looked like a photograph.

And now it is one. I took it with the crudest camera I have, under the worst conditions possible. And then I tortured it even more in an app to make it appear antique enough to feel relevant to all crises, all dark nights of the soul. It’s technically a wreck, and yet I’m proud of it. Proud of myself for getting outside myself in order to see it. Proud of it as a possession. And proud to allow my partner to be The Interpreter.

Inches away.

 

FIAT LUX, Michael Perkins’ newest collection of images, is now available through NormalEye Books. 

WINGING IT

Superstarling, 2020.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I AM A PHOTOGRAPHER WHO MAKES PICTURES OF BIRDS, but I cannot rightly be called a bird photographer. This is not cute double-talk: there is a mile of difference between a generalist, who occasionally shoots a lot of specific things every once in a while, and a dedicated artist who shoots those same things almost exclusively. One person is a dabbler who occasionally makes a few cookies from a mix. The other is a master chef. That said, then, what follows is both a love letter to the chefs and bit of a starter’s guide for the dabblers.

The fact is that, in more recently coordinating my shoots with birders who really know a budgie from a boomerang ( I assume there is one), I am in the field trying my luck to a far greater degree than I ever have been before. Essentially, this means speeding up my learning curve by taking a whole bunch of bad pictures in a shorter space of time. The bad pictures have to be a part of any serious new shooting discipline, and so I am at least getting them out of the way in a few years’ time instead of a few decades. Deliberately throwing yourself into a decidedly uncomfortable place (.i.e., not knowing what you’re doing) is good from several standpoints. First, it’s humbling, and a photographer without humility has stopped learning and has slid into mere habit. Second of all, uncertainty slows you down, meaning that there is both contemplation and planning in every shot. You might still get stinkeroo pictures, but at least you know why they happened.

A big part of the uncertainty in shooting birds is that you are either using your familiar equipment in unfamiliar ways, or using unfamiliar equipment, meaning you’re actually on two parallel learning tracks, one for figuring out what to shoot and the other determining how you’re going to do it. Your knowledge of composition, autofocus, and exposure rate will all be called into question and re-combined in ways that may seem strange. Warning: if you do need to re-tool, there will be a strong urge to go full tilt boogie and break the bank on state-of-the-art lenses. This could entail several thousands of dollars, and, since you will still have to go through the all-my-pictures-came-out-lousy phase, it will make you angry, and then it will make you quit. Do what you did during the first phase of your photographic career. Buy the simplest, easiest-to-use gear that gets the job done and work it to death until you actually outgrow everything it can do, and then upgrade to the bazillion-MM howitzers.

But let’s get back to humility, which will serve you better than all the gear in the world. In bird photography, you’re working with subjects that are more uncooperative than the grouchiest portrait subject you’ve ever faced. You must be okay with it when Plans A, B, C, and D go awry. You may not be shooting fast, but you must shoot with a fluid state of mind. And then there is patience: if waiting for a traffic light to change gets on your last nerve, you might want to stick to still life. Wildlife don’t care if you’re having a day, and part of the fun is sweating out an entire outing and coming home empty. So, yeah, there’s that.

And even though we’re primarily talking here about shooting birds, the same concept applies in any fresh area of photography, anytime you become, in effect a fledgling, allowing yourself to be kicked out of the nest of your accumulated comforts. Because, in making yourself do something so very different in its approach, asking something undiscovered within yourself, all of your other photographic instincts will widen as well. Sure, “winging it” can look like desperate flapping. But sometimes it can look like soaring.

 

(Michael Perkins’ new collection of images, Fiat Lux: Illuminations In Available Light, is available through NormalEye Books.)

STOLEN STILLNESSES

The Quiet Hour, 2013

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THIS ONGOING CHRONICLE, for anyone who is relatively new to it, is more about the motivations, rather than the methods, behind photography. The mechanical techniques of snapping a picture can only ensure that you will, in fact, produce an image. Everything else….the shaping, the conceptualizing, the intention of making a picture, happens outside the camera, inside yourself. What I’m leading to here is that, between you and your device, your device is far less crucial. This is why people can take good pictures with bad cameras, and why you can make a lousy image with a Leica. If I believed that photography was, like xerography, just a means of recording, then I could have saved you and me both the meanderings and mutterings of the last nine years.

Photography is a strange art because it begins with real subject matter and renders it surreal. Once an instant is yanked out of its rightful place in the orderly crawl of time, once it’s isolated and arrested in its flight forever, it becomes something else than what we first aimed at. We make a decision, in the present, to preserve something, and, in that instant, that object becomes something ago. Part of the past. Not only that, but it takes on the biases of the shooter, who decided that this light, rather than that light, should be the storytelling medium, that this composed frame should be chosen over all other possibilities. We dedicate ourselves, in a sense, to making things look “real”, while the very act of photography renders that reality null and void. The final picture of a thing is either real-plus, or real-minus, but, being filtered through both the camera and our own perceptions, it can never be merely “real” again.

We also decide what is worth photographing, as if the act of taking a picture of something could confer importance on it. Certainly, we are right at least some of the time. Some moments are, by their own nature, vital, essential to an understanding of the world. But then again, who is to say what’s meaningful and what’s banal? Perhaps the best thing you can say about a photograph is that it’s an argument, like a summary made before a jury. Well argued, the photograph is seen by one’s peers as necessary, as having added something to the overall experience….that is, the jury finds for your “truth”. Badly made, the argument that is a photograph is rebuffed or, worse, ignored. When I use the phrase the normal eye as the title for this screed it, means the process of teaching the eye to see in its own way, devoid of the interpretations or prejudices of others. To develop your most normal way of seeing. The trick of selecting little seconds of time to steal and preserve is quickly taught, in the purely mechanical sense. But as we soon learn, that’s only the first baby step in the quest for a photograph. That inner journey takes a lifetime.

 

(the image seen on this page is part of a new collection of Michael Perkins’ images, “Fiat Lux: Illuminations In Available Light”, available from here from NormalEye Press.) 

 

OF ITSELF, LIKE ITSELF

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I FIRST ENCOUNTERED THE WORD MONOGRAPH in the early pages of Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study In Scarlet, as I was just becoming acquainted with the thoroughness of Sherlock Holmes’ deductive process. The word was applied to, in this case, an extensive study of different kinds of cigar ash as a tool in the identification of criminals, but I came to know the word to denote a collection of thoughts around a common central subject, an examination of a theme over much time and many case histories. And, while the word is predominantly used to label written studies….collections of essays, the building of a theory, etc., I have always admired the “monographs” which have become the signature works of great photographers.

Robert Franks’ iconic The Americans is surely a monograph, as his eye builds a mosaic-like profile of this country across all its race and class lines. The first eerie series of portraits by Diane Arbus is also a monograph, as is Edward Steichen’s staggering museum exhibit The Family Of Man. In this age of self-publishing, it’s possible for photographers to organize book collections of their work along whatever thematic lines they choose, and, even though its role is vastly different in the present century, the book format is at least a way to contain one’s theme within fixed physical borders. And that may be why I still find it a comfortable format.

From the new book Fiat Lux, a series of available light images I’ve made over the past twenty years.

It’s been some time since I tried such a project (such as the one with which this blog shares its title), mostly because I never seemed to have quite enough images to flesh out the theme I was trying to present. And then there’s the problem of subject matter. People naturally expect photo collections to be “about” something, and the thing that unifies a set selection of pictures for me may be absolutely meaningless to the viewer. But with the distance of some twenty years of shooting in the digital domain, I’ve given it another go. My new book Fiat Lux (Let There Be Light) is nothing more than a chance to examine, in as broad a variety of pictures as I can, of the properties of “available light”. I never set out to deliberately boycott flashes or artificial illumination, but I find that the preparation that accompanies their use tends to slow me down and make me lose shots. Moreover, I find that the modeling properties, mysteries and drama of light often makes it the star of a picture all by itself. Most importantly, I see the original object of photography, that is, harnessing light to one’s purpose, as its most enduring and seductive feature, and I always choose the most direct route, from simple cameras to fast lenses, to achieve that goal.

The other objective in compiling Fiat Lux is to force myself into an editorial conundrum. I deliberately kept the total number of images in the book low to make myself make tough choices about (a) whether I have a style at all, and (b) which shots are essential to an understanding of that style, assuming I’d vanish off the earth tomorrow with nothing but this slim volume to explain myself to interested parties. I’ve had several people ask me, over the years, why I didn’t “just put out a book”, but, of course, I never “just” do anything, and so a certain amount of self-doubt and agony has gone into the process. Anyway, if you are so inclined, a sneak preview of some of the collection’s pages, as well as the option to order it, can be found here. Is it a monograph? Perhaps more of an autograph. Or an autobiography. Captions and labels are pretty useless, anyway, if the pictures aren’t there. The important thing is to show what you can show, and move on to the next picture. Thank God there’s always another picture.

FROZEN FLOWS

Pep Ventosa’s images are actually stacks of many frames of the same subject, taken from different angles and layered into a composite.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

MOST OF STILL PHOTOGRAPHY IS BASED ON EDITING CHOICES, on the selection of one key instant which stands in for an entire experience. The frozen moment when a runner breaks the tape. The isolated frame of one flap’s worth of an eagle’s descent. Single pieces of seconds that symbolize the complete flow of time. Still images are not really expected to show everything that happens in a scene, from Beginning to End, the way motion picture images are. And yet, there are always groundbreaking visionaries who can create astounding exceptions to that rule. Pep Ventosa is such an artist.

In your first view of Ventosa’s images of carousels, streetcars, or monuments, you could be forgiven for thinking you were looking at an impressionistic painting, a kind of lively Picasso-style mashup of viewpoints melded together in a single frame. But his work is completely photographic; it just comes packed with way more information than you encounter in a normal image. Because they aren’t images at all, but layers of images, sometimes hundreds of them, all taken at up to 360 degrees of difference from each other and blended artfully into composites. The actual concept is simple. Pep chooses a common part of an object or scene that he establishes as a center (like the carousel platform at left), and then rotates himself and his camera around that point to shoot multiple “takes” on a single scene, all shot at slightly different angles. Imagine yourself walking all the way around a tree and shooting frames during every part of the circuit. He then calls upon his lifelong experience in both film and digital darkrooms to give all those layers different levels of prominence, sculpting the color and the detail that will be both active and passive in the final composite. What he winds up with could be called a frozen movie, since his resulting photos are a recording of long sequences of activity, different in result from, say, a time exposure, but with the same intent.

Coke Crystal, 2020. My own tabletop adaptation of Pep’s technique.

Just as the cubists tried to create static paintings that included all the different ways of viewing an object married into a single canvas, Pep Ventosa is freeing the photographic process from having to choose one “decisive moment” of a subject to use a static format (the print) to suggest movement in time. And while he really has no equal in the way that he manages this process, he has begun to inspire others to do their own mini-Peps with still life or tabletop images, with far fewer building blocks of, say, a dozen or so exposures assembled in programs like Photoshop that are universally available.

In the image of a Coca-Cola drinking glass seen at left, I shot about 18 frames, merely rotating the glass a bit between shots and keeping the camera on a tripod triggered by a remote. I was careful not to let the central core of the glass move too far left or right, using it as the anchor for the project, allowing the embossed script on the outside of the glass, as well as the shadows created by its vertical ribs, to flow into shapes that simply could never be rendered in a single image. I’m just starting to get a feel for what kind of subject matter will work best with the process, starting small, rather than heading for the local skyscraper, where the rotating process would be reversed, with the building staying constant while I circled around it.

In either small or large cases, what Ventosa has done (and something which is damned hard to achieve in photography’s third century) is to say, in a completely original fashion “oh, you thought you knew what a picture was…..but how about this?” In the making of photos, as in any other visual art, there can be no more important question.

MORE/LESS THAN ITSELF

By MICHAEL PERKINS

“Photography has become one of the principal devices for experiencing something, for giving an appearance of participation.” –Susan Sontag, On Photography

IS AN OBJECT, A PLACE, A PERSON only worth noticing if we’ve officially “noticed” it with a camera? By constantly being in “capture mode”, i.e., looking for something to “take a picture of”, do we substantially shortchange ourselves of the memory of recording an experience rather than savoring the memory of having lived the experience itself? If we were to come back from a trip having taken no photographs at all, would we consider ourselves the poorer for it?

Perhaps the answer lies in some blend of direct and indirect experience. That is, maybe we should sometimes limit our photography to things that already have some meaning or connection to us, only using images to create a reminder of that which we have true memory of. In the case of the building you see here, that was certainly the case.

The second-floor entry door and family room window of the David and Gladys Wright House, designed in 1950 by Frank Lloyd Whatshisname.

Several years ago, when the fate of the last residential design by Frank Lloyd Wright in Phoenix, Arizona was decidedly uncertain, I had the chance to work briefly as a tour guide on the grounds of a dwelling that some regard as a dress rehearsal for the Old Man’s final masterpiece, New York’s Guggenheim Museum. The David and Gladys Wright House had passed, over the years, to parties that intended to raze the structure for “development”, at which time a local millionaire purchased the house just to protect it. Preservation and restoration being extremely expensive (if needful), he explored plans to convert the house into a learning center/museum, trying to partner with Arizona State University and others to get the project off the ground. Locals from the neighborhood, fearing that their property values would be undone by artsy invaders, freaked. Somewhere in that mad timeline of contention, the house was opened to the public in an effort to sway opinion. Not in my backyard, saith the locals.

As of this month, then, the property was resold, this time to a team of people who had actually worked at the Frank Lloyd Wright school of architecture, also headquartered in Phoenix. Again, the motive was to keep the house out of the clutches of apartment builders and others who would bulldoze it into dust. And here’s where the value of photographs comes in, at least for me; the same wheel of chance that allowed me to explore a place that otherwise would be completely off-limits to me has now spun ’round to close that door again, making the images of my time there doubly precious. At least for this particular photographic subject, the door has closed, and is likely to remain so. I certainly have my direct experience of the time to comfort me, but it was the indirect experience, the making of images after I had thoroughly taken in the scene with my raw senses, that imparts extra value to the pictures that remain. So, in the strictest sense, I didn’t just randomly wander onto the place and start clicking. That’s the stuff of snapshots. All of the house’s history was of value to me long before I ever aimed a camera at it. My pictures weren’t taken to make it important, or make it mine, like a trophy. They are now keepsakes of the most valuable kind.

(For the curious: the tabs at the top of this page are links to various personal photo essays, including Wright Thinking, a selection of views of the house taken during its days as a public attraction. Cheers.) 

 

THE DIAL-BACK

Lover’s Point, Monterey, California, 2012, original HDR mix. Ugh.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ONE OF THE BIGGEST BENEFITS I’ve derived by overseeing this forum over the past nine years has been the great gift of being able to distance myself from my earlier work, to get far enough away from techniques I once embraced to regard them with a mixture of bemusement and horror. The shorthand for this sensation is a variant on the phrase “what was I thinking?”

The important thing is not to either completely repudiate or uniformly defend earlier versions of one’s photographic output, but, in evaluating each piece separately, to find that some work shows a shift in perspective, an evolution in the way of doing things. Absolute consistency over years is not only unlikely but unhealthy. Art can’t breathe in a vacuum.

Lately, in reviewing some images shot within the last decade, I have run head-on into a huge clutch of pictures that, although they may have been pretty balanced in the master shots, were absolutely overwrought in post-processing. It wasn’t a case of putting lipstick on a pig, but of slathering it onto a fairly attractive woman, or maybe like the cartoonist who had the habit of ending the sentences in every one of his dialog balloons with TWO exclamation points, regardless of the content. In many of these shots I seemed on some kind of quest for the ultimate rendering of detail, coupled with a love of the most extreme contrasting and color saturation. HDR was where I committed my gravest sins but I was gooping up pictures in other processes as well. For some reason, I was proceeding as if there were no image that could not be “improved” simply by tinkering a little longer with it. The results were, shall we say, uneven.

Once more on the soft pedal. The sadder-but-wiser remix from 2020.

Look at the way I processed a simple coastal vista from a trip I made to Monterey, California in 2012 (see top image). Man, you can count every damn grain of sand on that beach, cantcha? And how about all that stone texture, eh? And then there are the clouds, which, in my heavy-handed treatment, were transformed from fluffy accents to signs of impending doom. Whole thing appears a bit grim, as if the apocalypse is definitely coming any second, and, golly ned, kids, you’d better run for it. The second, dialed-back version from this year allows for a slight tweak in color balances and luminescence, but then it’s hands off the steering wheel. Which place would you rather head to for a relaxing holiday? One scene actually appears somewhat inviting, while the other is like El Greco after an evening of far too much wine.

Sometimes I think that photography, rather than being labeled a “profession” or a “hobby”, should be referred to as a “practice”, since the constant addition and subtraction of skills and experience is similar to what a doctor tries to do. Fortunately, no one died as a result of my artistic malpractice, although I feel a little sick myself facing up to my shortcomings. But on we go. I may not, in fact, be able to tell you, years later, what I was thinking during earlier versions of myself. I only hope I was thinking at all, and that the needle has moved just a little, from there to here.

SOMEWHAT BEYOND “WE’RE OPEN”

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ANYONE WHO’S RIFFED THROUGH EVEN A MODEST SAMPLING of my photography will soon deduce that I am a sucker for storefronts. If eyes are the window to the soul, the street-facing faces of businesses great and small are my favorite kind of mystery game. Who dwells within? What’s for sale? Why that name? Why this sign? And of course my insatiable curiosity about the lives of the people who bravely flip over the “open” sign every morning. Long before the customer steps inside to check out a merchant’s wares, he is “asked for the order”, so to speak, by the visual language of the storefront.

I once knew a gent whose urban shop had an enormous double showcase windows, a space far too big for the mounting of anything large or expensive. As the windows, which flanked his front entrance, both had shalow ledge shelves, he filled them with about a half dozen black rubber cat-toy rats. Nothing else. No signs, no specials, no mannequins. Just….rats. Guy was an exterminator, and he had been in his particular neighborhood for so long that he no longer needed to blow money on fancy advertisements or weekly specials. Maybe his name was on the building, but I’m not even sure of that. Got rats? I get rid of rats. End of story.

Okay, kids, let’s head over to ‘Eyes On You” to pick up some….glasses, maybe?

And there you have my quest in a nutshell. I love storefronts which boldly state that ground beef is going for $1.40 a pound or that “we repair any shoe”, but my absolute favorites are always the conundrums, the “exactly what is this place”-type businesses, where even a creatively decorated scheme is zero clue as to what is transpiring within….sort of like the shop seen here. And, yes, there are some tiny clues that Eyes On You is a place that sells glasses, as there are, indeed, a few of them just visible in a small niche in the right-hand windows. But what is all that other stuff? And what does it have to do with selling, well, anything? It doesn’t matter; half the fun, as the cruise lines used to say, is getting there, and decoding the marketing mysteries of small businesses is fun in the way that a brisk game of Twenty Questions can be. Photographs, as we often remind ourselves, both reveal and conceal….sometimes at the same time. Loving where and when that happens is the spice of the game.

THE NEIGHBORHOOD KID

In the streets. Of the streets.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IT’S FORTUNATE FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS THAT THERE AREN’T MORE THAN A FEW WRITERS IN THE WORLD who can render a sense of place, of emotional truth, or of vivid detail as effectively as did Pete Hamill, the peerless New York journalist who passed earlier this week in this, 2020, the year of the Great Hibernation. Indeed, if the world was more generally peopled with people of his skill and passion, there would be no need of cameras. None.

This little hometown newspaper has, over the years, offered up brief sketches of the great shooters, from Walker Evans and Ansel to Diane Arbus, as well as gifted amateurs like Lewis Carroll. But this week, in my grief over the passing of a man who was a stranger to me personally, but, just as personally, as important as a blood relative, I realize that he, too, must be enshrined in a gallery of people who mostly shone in purely visual terms. Because, for those who live in and love the greater New York area, William Peter Hamill, Jr. did everything a good photographer strives to do, creating many images on the page that rival anything that even the best shooter could create.

Pete’s career as a columnist, novelist, essayist and teacher is the stuff of solid legend, but others have a far greater handle on the details of that story than I, like the New York Times, whose obituary on him is offered here. What I am talking about, in this forum, is the way he rendered the streets of Manhattan and the outer boroughs for those who had never had the privilege to walk them in person. He knew those streets the way a mother of twelve knows her kids…their names, their birthdays, their talents, their torments. In a city that never stands still long enough to linger over memory, Pete could dig through the strata of centuries in any neighborhood on the island, drilling all the way down to the gray schist that the Dutch stepped onto at the beginning of the entire mad experiment. Peeling those layers apart, he could place the territories of any immigrant from any tribe; where they landed, where they wandered, where they built legends, where they perished. In Hamill’s hands, the word nostalgia did not merely mean a sentimental ache for things lost or demolished. Certainly he kept score on what the city had sacrificed in its everlasting dash toward The Next Big Thing, but it was the details beyond mere longing that made his stories sing. It was what made him an indispensable guide for Ric Burns’ epic New York PBS miniseries, and Downtown: My Manhattan as indispensable a tool for newcomers as the Fodor’s travel guides. And it was what made even his darkest accounts of things great and small elicit, in the reader, a wry smile of recognition. “The tragic sense” he observed with true Irish fatalism, “opens a human being to the exuberant joys of the present.”

Like a photographer, Pete Hamill knew how to compose a frame to make your eye go directly to the most important thing. He knew where to lavish light and where to accent with darkness. He felt the value of negative space. He had a photo editor’s instinct for where to wield the cropping scissors. And he realized that the best human stories are simple, universal, direct things. Pete did with a Royal what the greatest photographers do with a Leica, but the result was the same. Immediacy. Truth. And the wisdom to ensure that his readers would always see The Big Picture.

HUMILITY ON THE WING

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IF YOU REALLY THINK YOU KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHY, take a moment to consider what you typically shoot. After all, there comes a point, with practice and experience, at which you will get pretty good at making pictures of the things you’re used to making pictures of. Shoot enough skyscrapers and you can eventually become The Skyscraper Guy. But then, in the pursuit of humility, start making 100% of your shots of something about which you know next to nothing. Better still, shoot things that seldom, if ever, pique your interest….and then see how you do.

I am on record in these pages as admitting that I am always playing defense when it comes to nature work. It’s not my first interest, and it’s far from my comfort zone. However, I do derive enjoyment from the thought that I might ,at some point, have a chance of getting better at it. That’s not the same as actually getting better at it, but…..

Insofar as I can see a personality in a bird, I can almost make an acceptable picture of it.

Over the last five years, I’ve begun to dip my toe into work with birds, mostly because it allows me and my birder mate to do more things together. However, on many expeditions in search of the Rump-Roasted Titbill or the Green-Throated Flipwing I am as likely to shoot the surrounding wildlife as I am the official quarry, simply because I know, at some level, that my success with birds is random and unpredictable. In short, I may actually have the wrong personality to be good at capturing the little darlings.

First of all, I only possess the cardinal (sorry) virtue of patience in limited supply. That’s not helpful, since, as I hinted at the start, shooting outside your comfort zone will instantaneously reverse-morph you back to the clueless twelve-year-old you were when you first picked up a camera. And yes, bird photography is that different, in that it has many exclusive techniques that no other kind of photography will completely prepare you for. And then there is the expense. Basic cameras will occasionally (underscore that word) bring you good results, but the precision required for the best bird work, the “ahh”-inducing shots, can only be had for money. A good deal of it. It’s just a fact that we’ll never know how many of us would have become excellent bird photographers simply because many cannot afford the gear necessary to produce the best results. That’s not sour grapes, no more than it is whiny to say that I can’t explore the surface of the moon with a $100 pair of binoculars.

So what’s to do? Well, decent pictures can be made with modest equipment, but the work will be harder, and the accumulation of skill will be exponentially slower. The bird shots that I truly like come from approaching birds as I might a human subject, that is, by observing behavior long enough to get a sense of the bird as a “person” the way I might with a portrait subject. The more time I spend with an individual bird, the more I convince myself that I am locked into his thoughts or reactions. Of course, I could just be crazed with the heat (always wear a hat), but that mindset just barely gives me the courage to try something I will likely not do very well for some time to come. Humility, on the wing. Cool.

Now, can I go take a picture of a skyscraper?

EXALT, IN YOUR COPY

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I ONCE ASSEMBLED A SHORT BOOK CALLED “Juxtapositions” in which I flanked images of my own with quotations by great photographers on their craft. It was an amusing if inconsequential exercise, and helped me compile a miniature library of ruminations on why we do what we do. Some shooters were as eloquent in print as their pictures were, while others preferred to remark very briefly, content to let their images speak for them. I never thought, at the time, to seek out general philosophical treatises on creativity, to see the photographer’s motives discussed in general artistic terms. That now strikes me as short-sighted. It’s like doing a master thesis on breakfast and failing to consider eggs.

So let me make amends by pasting up the following passage and suggesting that it actually describes photography more perfectly than the words of any one shooter that I can recall. It doesn’t deal in the technical aspect of making a picture, since it actually predates the popularity of the medium, but perfectly describes what the photographer is seeking to do when he/she picks up a camera. From Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay Art:

Much of the best in photography is, essentially, “based on a true story”.

“Because the soul is progressive, it never quite repeats itself, but in every act attempts the production of a new and fairer whole. This appears in works both of the useful and the fine arts, if we employ the popular distinction of works according to their aim, either at use or beauty. Thus in our fine arts, not imitation, but creation is the aim. In landscapes, the painter should give the suggestion of a fairer creation than we know. The details, the prose of nature he should omit, and give us only the spirit and splendor. He should know that the landscape has beauty for his eye, because it expresses a thought which is to him good: and this, because the same power which sees through his eyes, is seen in that spectacle; and he will come to value the expression of nature, and not nature itself, and so exalt in his copy, the features that please him. He will give the gloom of gloom, and the sunshine of sunshine. In a portrait, he must inscribe the character, and not the features, and must esteem the man who sits to him as himself only an imperfect picture or likeness of the aspiring original within.”

In making pictures, we craft compromises between what is visible and what our mind “sees”, between the mundane details of reality and the larger cues it feeds to our spirit. This is why the word “take”, in reference to the creation of a photograph, is so inadequate. We do certainly “take” something from the physical world, but we add personal intangibles to it, “making” an image out of a mix of both recordable and emotional information. As Emerson says so brilliantly, we “omit” the “prose of nature” and try to give “only the spirit and splendor.” If we’re lucky, we are not only faithful to our own vision, but instrumental in sharing something that another soul may recognize as familiar. That’s when a photograph has truly been “made”. It seems like magic because it is magic, as we exalt, in our copy, the features that please us.

HUE MUST REMEMBER THIS….

By MICHAEL PERKINS

DECADES INTO THE DIGITAL ERA IN PHOTOGRAPHY, we are still coming to terms with just how much the shift away from film-based technology has profoundly changed the way we make pictures. Much has been written, for example, about the “instant feedback loop” that allows us to correct our errors on the fly, which is huge. Even more has been said about the increased intuitive nature of our devices in digital, and that, too is a massive factor. In fact, it was in stopping to catalog all the treats and toys that are at one’s fingertips in even the most basic cameras these days that I lit on what I think is the most profound change: our relationship to color.

One of the most universal tweaks engineered into cameras, for years now, is the incredible power to control saturation, with the option becoming the most common feature in all cameras from disposables to Leicas. Of course, even in analog days, we were able to play somewhat to the color properties of a particular emulsion, or to shape it with adjustments in lighting or white balance. But now the ability to attenuate color both before and after the shutter click, even without post-processing software, is instantaneous and universal. Depending on your perspective, this is either good or…oh, who am I kidding? No one thinks this is bad. The fact that control of one of the most crucial determinants of picture quality is forevermore in the hands of the user rather than the lab technician is an obvious net gain.

 

Is there any such thing as “straight out of the camera”? Depends on my mood, and whether I can keep my fingers off the saturation controls….

However, simply because we have the ability to tweak color to our liking doesn’t mean we need to do it uniformly, even though, admittedly, saturation is rewarded mightily in the marketplace of public opinion. Show someone an image dripping in color and ask them what they like about it. Chances are good that they’ll say it looks “realistic” or “natural”, neither of which, of course, is accurate. Ansel Adams, skeptically slow to come over to the color camp, criticized editors for boosting hues just because it met with popular applause, saying “if all else fails, make it red”. The irony for photographers, who at one time or another fancy themselves as recorders of the authentic, is that most of them love, love, love them some bright tones, and find it hard to resist goosing up the numbers beyond what the eye actually sees. But since a photograph exists in the mind before it ever exists in the camera, we can only assume that we, personally, regard many “real” things as, well,…. drab. Thus we creatively lie, in the harmless way that a fisherman increases the size of his catch every time he repeats the story of how he pulled it onto the boat. We give reality a little help. Well, sometimes more than a little. So much for the mythical construct of “straight out of the camera” which is as elusive, and as attainable, as a blind date with Sasquatch.

Am I without sin myself? Not on your grandma’s Kodachrome, as demonstrated in the above frame. However, photography (and this little hometown newspaper of ours) is about questioning intentions just as much as snapping the shutter. Maybe more so. Because if you never wonder if you’re on the wrong path, chances are good that you are. The best artists in any field ask just one more question.

Maybe two.

LOVED INTO LONGEVITY

Winner and still champion from my personal library.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

SO MUCH OF THE GREATER WORLD SEEMS SO PERISHABLE under our present Great Hibernation that one’s mind goes naturally to things of more lasting value. The more that contemporary concepts of “permanence” vanish like smoke, the more the photographer in me values the artifacts of a life that still remain close at hand. Access to the fuller world is often denied me these days, but, here, inside the compound, there is a renewed opportunity to visually reassess the things I have carried with me over a lifetime.

This has led me to try to create what you might call formal photographic “portraits” of various ephemera around the house, from weathered old coats to favorite records to…books. For me, a person who has entertained a collector’s fetish with so many kinds of playthings and pastimes over the years, everything always seems to come back to books. The printed word, and the physical packages in which it came, harnessed my passion before music, before photography, before even romantic love. And, if we’re talking about a consistent source of comfort, books have acted as one of the most permanent and reliable anchors to earlier versions of myself. I leap between covers, and I vanish, emerging re-centered, fuller and finer than I was before the plunge.

In trying to photograph the oldest surviving book in my collection, I found a lot of techniques left something visually unsaid, delivering images that were too cosmetically clean, too charming. The book you see here has been with me in high times and low since 1963. It was probably the first hardback book that was truly mine, not one just plucked out of my parents’ library. For my picture, it needed to look traveled, well explored. It needed the historical gravitas of a few creases and stains, to look like a book that was important enough to be revisited and revered over a lifetime. After several attempts that looked, well, flat to me, I decided to go into my old trick bag and shoot it as an HDR. I had not used the technique for a while, since the acuity of current camera sensors has improved to the point where shooting and blending several bracketed exposures just to reproduce the full dynamic range of tones from dark to light was now as easy as squeezing off a snapshot. But in the case of my library’s longevity leader, I needed the over-accentuated detail that sometimes turned me (and others) against HDR: a look which would record and underscore every defect and scar, freeing them to speak a little louder. Another thing that argued for the technique: years prior, I had made a picture of my wife’s old 45 rpm record storage case, an item similarly, vigorously loved. HDR would deliver the warts-and-all portrayal I was seeking.

In the end I eschewed the full-tilt effect in favor of a milder blend called tone compression, boosting the detail but stopping short of making things too surreal. Finally, I had a picture that made the book look as if it had actually been used, rather than flawlessly archived. I had loved that book into longevity, and now, like the proud lines of survival etched on the face of a human subject, the tome was capable of fully flaunting its flaws.

Fabulously.

AD SUA ESSENTIA

Night Nymph, 2020. f/1.6, 1/20 sec., ISO 250, 56MM

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IT IS SAID THAT THE SOUL ALWAYS RECALLS, AND LONGS FOR , ITS ORIGIN. We begin as something, become something else, and forever ache at the memory of our beginnings. So it is with religion. So too with philosophy. And hometowns. And first loves.

And photography.

I can still remember the pure and uncomplicated thrill of my first attempts to take a picture. I understood so little of how the simple box in my hands worked  that the only control I exercised over the process was one of intention. I tried to will good pictures into the camera. Armed with such a simple device, there was nothing for me to calculate or calibrate, even if I had known what those terms even meant. All I had was the things in front of me, and the desire to capture them, to own a small piece of them forever. The act was a simple one because both I and the camera were so utterly simple. The terms of photography were direct, clear. The results were, to be kind, all over the place. But even those failures were magical, in a way.  Magic is always more powerful when you don’t quite understand how the trick works. Or if it even will.

I still look for that level of, let’s call it directness. Like anyone trying to master a craft at multiple levels, I have gone far into the arcana and minutia of making pictures over the years, but my favorite pictures are still the ones in which I feel the most and think the least, the ones with simple, even raw tools, and nearly nothing between me and the picture except intention. In the above image, I’m using a lens with one focal length, shot wide open at f/1.6 to allow me to get a soft, handheld image at night with a very glowy sheen and minimal ISO boost. It’s not even close to technically precise work, and yet I love the result, because, at this moment, it’s the kind of picture-making I need to reset my enthusiasm, to re-connect with what used to be native to me. As Bogart said, the stuff that dreams are made of.

Picasso famously remarked that it took his entire adult life to learn how to paint the way a child does. If the Romans had had cameras, they might have said that pictures made in such a fashion were done ad sua essentia…”to their essence”. What that boils down to, for me, is that, every once in a while, I miss that wide-eyed twelve year old that first picked up an Imperial Mark XII camera and tried to will pictures into it. I miss him, and I have to go looking for him.

He has something I want.

MAKING LESS BADDER PICTURES

A bridge camera with “superzoom” capabilities can extend your reach for a reasonable price but also has its own limits. 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IN REALITY, THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS “BREAKING IN” A NEW CAMERA. The device cannot think and therefore cannot be trained or “broken” to its user’s will, like some kind of wild mustang. Indeed, when it comes to a new pairing of photographer and gear, if anyone is being broken in, it’s you.

Consider: since only one participant in this relationship has an intellect, only that one can change or adapt. The camera or lens is designed to permanently perform to certain static specs. It just is. You must make your technique adjust to what the device can do, and, more importantly, what it can’t do. In fact, the whole “breaking in” process with new photographic equipment would go smoother were it to center on learning what said equipment is incapable of. I was recently reminded of this emphasis when I purchased a camera that is designed to do very specific things that my regular go-to camera cannot, but which, in turn, can’t do many of the things that I am accustomed to doing in everyday practice. Such is the so-called “bridge camera”, a hybrid between a point-and-shoot and a DSLR that features both strengths and limits of the original two categories. Again, the idea is for me to learn what I cannot expect from such a tweenie device.

In my case, I purchased the camera for its “super-zoom’ capabilities, specifically so I can enjoy my wife’s birdwatching hobby to a greater degree. And sure, the camera also comes packed with some of the same features as my default unit, but I will be creatively frustrated if I don’t learn what not to expect from the hybrid. It is succeeding at being a bridge camera, not failing as a DSLR. If anyone is going to have to evolve, it’s me. Everything to its own strength. I can’t go from zero to sixty in ten seconds in a 1968 VW Beetle no matter how badly I want to. However, it’s a helluva lot easier to park than my ’78 Eldorado. And so it goes.

The best cure for New Gear Awkwardness is to shoot, shoot, and shoot some more, especially in an era in which official documentation for cameras is increasingly scarce and experience is more important than diving into the user’s manual. You must admit to yourself that the majority of early shots with your new gear are going to stink, and just embrace whatever learning curve you’re speeding along on by getting all those cruddy images out of the way early on in the process. Getting a shot like the one seen above is certainly easier with a bridge superzoom, but these lenses also come with their own weaknesses and quirks, meaning that your ratio of ruined-to-righteous shots is waaay high at the start. The goal on many early days is to merely make, well, less badder pictures.

This process is consistent with photography in general. We adjust our creativity to the limits of the technology, rather than re-making it in our own image. It’s kind of humbling, but, as it turns out, when it comes to artistry, humble is a good place to start.

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.

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