the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

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STUMBLING ONTO SECRETS

By MICHAEL PERKINS

REGARDLESS OF WHETHER YOU CONSIDER YOUR PHOTOGRAPHY TO BE JOURNALISTIC BY NATURE, you will, over the course of your shooting life, have the visual evidence of other people’s stories dumped into your lap. In most cases, it’s the physical aftermath of some human event that you are arriving at after the fact. Leave-behinds from a mystery. Who left this here? What happened here? Who made this, and why?

Photogs regularly stumble onto other people’s secrets, or at least the litter of secrets. People abruptly break camp and move on from the site of their strangest whims, leaving clues that may or may not make their original intentions clear. And since we take just as many images of the things we don’t understand as those we think that we do, we snap away at the strange archaeological digs people abandon when they go on to the next thing in their lives. The fact that we don’t comprehend just what it is that they left behind doesn’t make the pictures any less compelling. In fact, quite the contrary.

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This office chair was discovered just where you see it, under the golden canopy of a single enormous palo verde tree in full spring blossom. The shady seclusion of the scene seems to indicate a desire to shelter, to escape, to carve out a quiet spot of contemplation. And while that may indeed be the case, the whole thing invites a lot of other questions. Why this chair? Was it the person’s favorite, or, conversely, a perch so hated that dragging it here was the next best thing to lugging it to the town dump or pouring lighter fluid on it? What was motivating enough to transfer a chair from the nearest office suite (about a tenth of a mile away) and finding a place where it could be left with no fear of discovery? Was the site scouted, or merely happened upon? How many times did the person come to sit in the chair, and why and for how long? Was it the object of reward (in an hour I’ll be able to escape to the chair) or some kind of desperate relief (if I don’t get away from these people, I’m going to just lose it..)?

One picture conjures all of this, and more, additional plot lines which I’m sure even the casual viewer can supply without much effort. That’s the beauty of even the untold stories captured in photographs. They tell us enough to keep the seeker coming back for more. We think, as photographers, that we want to reveal everything, but, in reality, many of our most treasured images are of other people’s secrets, unrevealed, and, hence, irresistible.

PUTTING THE “O” IN ORACLE

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By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHY IS NOT A PLACE TO ESCAPE THE FEELINGS OF UNCERTAINTY THAT COLOR nearly every human endeavor. If you’re looking for a sure thing, you’d best not ever pick up a camera. Like ever.

In a tsunami of tech-talk designed to assure and soothe the anxious snapper, perhaps we can only move forward by going back, in a return to the only universally recognized authority on how to conduct the affairs of man with clarity and surety.

I’m suggesting that we all dig into our toy chests and begin, once again, to trust the Magic 8-Ball.

Hey, if it was good enough to pronounce on whether that cute boy in Math likes you, or whether you’ll win a million dollars, it should be wise enough to help you make better pictures. Some of the Ball’s responses even seem to be custom-made for the modern photographic age.

Will my last good battery die just before the bride and groom cut the cake?

You may rely on it

Is this on-line equipment reviewer on the level, or is he just a corporate shill who gets his gear for free?

Better not tell you now

Will my new, cutting-edge have any manufacturer support from the manufacturer beyond, say, my next birthday?

Outlook not so good

Even in 2022, can I still manage to forget to remove my lens cap?

It is decidedly so

Will this editing software help me rescue my crappiest pictures?

Very doubtful

Should I perhaps share just one of the thirty-five frames I shot of my adorable cat in a Batwoman costume?

It is certain

Will more than one shot on a twenty-four exposure role of film from my plastic toy camera not make me cringe?

My sources say no

And, finally, should I just sell all my cameras and learn to paint? By the numbers, maybe?

Reply hazy, try again 

Maybe trying to remove the risk from photography is the wrong approach (spoiler alert: it is). Maybe the uncertainty is not only the point, but the entire thrill. Perhaps pulling something organized and intentional out of randomness is why we do it in the first place. As to our chances for occasionally beating the odds and freezing something wonderful inside a box, the ball has the last word: outlook good. 

THE STREET GIVETH…

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IT’S BEEN CALLED SPYING, PRYING, PREDATION, and, occasionally “art”….the strange cross between eavesdropping and journalism that is collectively known as “street” photography. The elements of it that reveal something universal or profound about the human condition are hailed with exhibitions and awards, while the worst of it is considered rude, intrusive, even cruel. For those of us who only want our picture taken when we give specific permission, or when we are “ready”, street work can feel like theft, that is, something that is stolen from us. Then again, it also, sometimes, nails the truth about someone else’s vulnerabilities or foibles, and that, miraculously, we seem to be able to live with.

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In a world in which billions of images are snapped globally each day, and in which most shutters are absolutely silent, and flash is on the endangered species list, it seems as if we have long since passed the point of no return in terms of privacy. We emotionally demand it even though we have no logical right to expect it. Every day there are more and more places where cameras can not only intrude, but intrude with laser precision, and we must reluctantly admit that, effectively, we are all under surveillance, always.

We have almost unlimited access to everyone’s quiet inner moments, at least the ones they play out in public. Does everyone deserve to have every part of their life laid bare, and who is to decide? If you come upon a private moment, such as the one seen above, does slicing off a sample of it for public use cheapen that moment? Or does it in some way celebrate it as emblematic of something essential about being human, something we all recognize, even share?

I shake up all these arguments on a day-by-day and frame-by-frame basis, and I don’t always come up with a coherent answer. The street giveth and the street taketh away, and photographers pluck their harvest from it like an army of insatiable fruit pickers. Are we bad? Are we wrong? Can anyone say for sure?

LOSING FOCUS

By MICHAEL PERKINS

WITH THIS GENERATION’S NEARLY UNIVERSAL EMBRACE OF CONSUMER-FRIENDLY EDITING SUITES LIKE PHOTOSHOP has come a new vocabulary to describe the new freedoms made possible by their use. Terms like painterly, dreamy, and atmospheric signal the reemergence of a far more interpretive kind of photography that has finally broken the long reign of the Cult Of Sharpness that valued crispness and “realism” above all other considerations in picture-making for nearly a century.

The idea, espoused by Ansel Adams and other from the photo group f/64 (a name that refers to what was then supposedly the sharpest f-stop possible), was that only a keen, precise measurement of light and tone could be regarded as “straight” photography and that all other more impressionistic renderings were somehow less authentic. This idea was itself a severe reaction to an even earlier school of photography called Pictorialism, which favored the tweaking of processing and printing tech to manipulate mood in much the same way that painters had always done. Some shooters like Adams regarded P-word pictures as the dead opposite of photography, as a non-scientific surrender to the painting tradition. Ansel, never the mealy-mouthed observer, once even went so far as to refer to Pictorialist William Mortensen as “the anti-Christ.” And so, as a consequence of the f/64 coven’s influence, the historical door on the dreamier side of photography was officially slammed shut and the word went out for decades afterward, to both pro and amateur alike that Sharpness is King.

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City Of Ambition, a Pictorialist photogravure by Alfred Stieglitz (1910)

Pictorialists’ images, like the NYC scene from Alfred Stieglitz seen here, were created by odd mixes of cross-mixed chemicals, the etching of pictures on printing plates, deliberate degradation of negatives, and dozens of other interventions done after the shutter click to deepen contrast, soften hard edges, and widen the range of tones for dramatic effect. Think of it as analog beta-testing for the tricks we now do with a few mere mouse clicks. Several generations of tech later, the sheer number of editing choices in the present day has led to a strong reassertion of soft or selective focus, of textures and tones that go beyond the real world in amazing and exciting ways. It’s led even those who still shoot film, like the toy camera devotees of Lomography, to re-evaluate what focus and sharpness are in a picture are actually for, and when to attenuate or even turn them off completely. It’s also led to the success of companies like Lensbaby, who sell all-manual lenses to digital shooters who want an interpretive tool, rather than a scientific instrument, to help them make images.

And so everything old is new again. Indeed, photography may have finally entered a phase in which “eras” and “trends” are just words, a time in which all times (and schools of thought) are equal. Here’s to the opportunity that that implies, and to an art that is just beginning, in its third century, to spread its new butterfly wings.

MAYBE A CIGAR, ANYWAY

By MICHAEL PERKINS

A FACE ONLY A MOTHER COULD LOVE. That’s the standard cliche in describing someone so unlovable that he or she has, at best, a devoted audience of maybe one. The saying used to apply solely to physical beauty, but can, these days, define anyone or anything that is just this side of universally loathsome. Substitute the word picture for face and photographer for mother, and you’ve summed up what some of us feel for our rejected images, the ones we bitterly hate and desperately love at the same time.

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The image see here is one of my own top five red-headed stepchildren, a picture that is so close to being exactly what I wanted of it, yet so technically flawed that any person of taste or perception would immediately consign it to the rubbish bin, and with good reason. And yet, year after year, doing my annual “rehab tour” of pictures that I somehow can’t permanently destroy, it pops up, begging for love or at least a little maternal forbearance. My attitude is not so much close, but no cigar as much as can I have just one hit off of YOUR cigar? For effort?

The shot was taken in the circular rotunda that acts as the initial vestibule of entry to Griffith Observatory, which sits like a gleaming Art Deco Sci-Fi castle atop a promontory that overlooks downtown Los Angeles. The Keck rotunda’s walls are rich with murals that celebrate the great celestial and scientific discoveries of the ages, and the Foucault pendulum, seen here as the recessed circle that several patrons are starting into, bathes faces in a warm uplight that makes them look like glowing participants in a Maxxfield Parrish painting. In this snap (and it was a “snap”, with no more planning or intention than the word implies) the random poses of the crowd, including the young woman doing an “oh, wow” as she enters through a door, look impossibly staged, something that endears it to me years later.

But, then there’s that total blowout of high blue and white light from the parking lot, taken in an attempt to capture the entrance’s unique metal grillework. I mean, the entire effect of the picture screams “preliminary sketch”, only I didn’t go back and do the technical work that would have corrected the contrast, color rendition or overall exposure. Never has so much raw material been presented with so little in the way of decent execution.

And therein lies the face “only a mother could love”. Like any mom, we love in spite of what our kids actually are, in spite of what they actually achieved. And we weep a little about what might have been, of what little more effort it might have taken to actually win the cigar.

WORTH A THOUSAND PICTURES

By MICHAEL PERKINS

A LITTLE RESEARCH REVEALS THAT THE MOST POPULAR NAME FOR ALL OF THE PHOTOGRAPHS ever published over two hundred-some years’ time is, simply, “untitled”. This used to strike me, in my younger days, as laziness or dullness on the part of the photographer, but now I often see it as the perhaps the best approach. A picture may, indeed, be worth a thousand words, but it only takes a handful of those words to diminish an image’s effect.

Adding a title or caption to a photo can actually bruise its power. Titling anchors an image by telling the viewer what it is supposed to be (or not be), a function that should fall to the image alone. Giving a picture a simple name, like Niagara Falls Vacation, 1969 is an act of cataloguing, but any ability the photograph has to be universal or timeless is hemmed in by whatever words accompany it, so that even a basic title can have an unintended effect.

And then there are the acts of people other than the original photographer, an editor for example, who may arbitrarily assign context or “meaning” to an image by labeling it later. This has obviously resulted in real mischief by those who want to appropriate a photo to bolster their own messages, a practice which could lead to its impact being prostituted or used for any variety of nefarious aims.

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Absent a caption, a photograph is forced to speak for itself. As an exercise: in the above image, is the child tired, discouraged, frightened, jealous, in pain, at risk, even joyful or grateful? If I reveal the rather ordinary truth about the image, that it was taken of a boy who was disappointed at not being able to remain longer in a zoo’s gift shoppe, that short-circuits any other meaning that the viewer might want to bring to it. It stunts its impact.

And, yes, it might be too cute by half if I craft some playfully obscure name for the picture (as I tend to) or just number it, or even call it “untitled”, but that, at least, puts the viewer back into a kind of exchange with the author about what the picture could be by supplying that information himself. Images are powerful things. However, in trying to catalogue or explain them, we can greatly reduce that power, even neutralize it. Letting pictures speak for themselves….well, it’s why we make them in the first place, isn’t it?

FROM DAMN TO DARN

By MICHAEL PERKINS

OVER THE MANY YEARS THAT I HAVE BEEN SHOOTING PRIMARILY ON FULL MANUAL, there have been plenty of chances for me to embarrass myself utterly by mis-reading various settings on the fly. I stay with manual mostly out of the comfort that many decades of doing it afford me, and partly because even semi-or-fully-automatic shooting modes can occasionally stab me in the back anyway. That said, every once in a while, I totally mis-read the road and wind up with an exposure like this:

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Lemme ‘splain, Lucy: I was in a hurry to get the man in the lower left corner before he could cross further right. I wanted him to appear small against the immense white wall that was both a literal and symbolic barrier cutting him off from parts of the street and cutting us off from the rest of the available view. Unfortunately, just a few seconds prior, I had shot something much darker and left the settings the same, meaning that a white wall became a By-God-We’re-Not-Playing-Around-Here-Freaking-WHIIIIIITE-WALLLLLLLL. This is what photographers and race car drivers alike call A Blowout.

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Then, since I had already obliterated a lot of detail and contrast with the master shot, I wondered if I should just go whole hog and remove more of both, including desaturating everything except the man’s skin tones and part of a traffic sign. In other words, start with a flawed picture and then exaggerate the flaws until it looks, you know, intentional. Did I succeed? Depends on when you ask me.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all about saving face when I blow a picture, and I’m certainly not above applying a few tweaks to make my flub look like a win. But here I think I’m just telling myself what I want to hear. This isn’t an avant-garde or edgy commentary on our times. It’s just a blown picture. But at least I can tell myself (and you, dear reader) that I can still tell the difference.

KEEPIN’ IT (FROM BEING) REAL

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ONE OF THE KEYS TO UNDERSTANDING WHERE PHOTOGRAPHY IS lies in studying where it started from. If you place the camera amongst the other technical marvels of the nineteenth century, from trains to telegraphs to telephones to electrification, you see a steady stream of mechanical/scientific means of quantifying or measuring things, with the Magic Box That Imprisons Light being seen as one more device to help us master or harness nature. This got the invention off on a certain foot, in an origin story that we still struggle with.

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We got used to thinking of photographs as recordings of reality. We wuz wrong. 

Unlike painting, which was natively seen as an emotional / interpretative means of commenting on the world, the camera began life being regarded as a scientific instrument. An official recorder of reality…its dimensions, its contrasts, its events. The real record. But since, from the very beginning, one could manipulate the results, whether with recording medium (glass plates, film, etc.), exposure, processing, and so forth, each photographer had it within his power to also apply his/her own idea of what “the truth” was. Fakery appeared early on, and of course, both the choice to go with the default tonal palette of monochrome or the whim to deliberately engineer one’s one tonal schema (hand coloring, for example). This meant that, from the start, reality was not a final destination for photographs. It was a point of departure. 

That’s why I don’t understand the backhanded compliment that something/anything is appealing because it “looks like a photograph”. My reflexive answer is, “whose photograph?” Walker Evans? Many Ray? Annie Liebovitz? Granny at the birthday party? Photographers may use “reality” as raw material, but none of the best of them, to my taste, are satisfied with reality as a final message. The image seen here, for example, is the product of manipulation, and, if I’m lucky, that fiddling will seem logical, or invisible, or, if I’m really careful, inevitable, as if my result could not be any other way. But real? God, don’t anchor me, or photography with the anvil of mere reality. The world as it is will never be as fascinating to artists as the world that might have been, or may yet be.

2-FERS

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ONE OF MY PROUDEST ACHIEVEMENTS AS A PHOTOGRAPHER has little to do with the power or technical precision of this image or that, but rather in any success I may experience in trying, over time, to do more with less. Fewer procedural steps per shot. Fewer cameras per piece of baggage. And, mounted on said cameras, fewer lenses to do nearly everything, or as close to that holy state that I can get.

It’s not just a case of lessening the strain on my aching back/neck, although that is a helluva motivator. No, it’s more about the time lost switching between cameras, camera bodies, lenses, attachments, etc., which must inevitably lead to lost shots. Or at least that’s what I tell myself. If only I hadn’t been fiddling for that other optic, I tearfully whine, I’d already have produced a masterpiece today, or some other such delusion. There is also the cold, hard fact of my own innate sloth. I’d like to have my hands freer for more of the time, especially if someone might be inclined to proffer a ham sandwich or, Lord bless me, an I.P.A.

That said, I now choose lenses based on the breadth of their traits, glass that I can just stick on a single camera with a reasonable expectation of being able to get 90% of what I want simply because the lens is not a one-trick pony. For example, that might mean, say, looking for a prime lens that has a wide aperture range, allowing me to do portraits, landscapes, and even a few handheld night shots all with one set-up. In my younger days, I thought nothing of doing this by taking three separate lenses along, all of them delivering just one specialized effect. Homey don’t play that no more.

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This “faux macro” was actually shot with a zoom lens from about twenty feet away. 

As an example: I am often on birdwatching walks with my friends for which someone forgot to memo the birds to, you know, actually show up. That used to mean being stuck all day with just “the bird camera”, a fairly adequate bridge model with decent zoom, but a small sensor that makes it lousy on scenic work. In recent years, I have repurposed the thing as a faux macro lens, merely by zooming in, not on distant mountains or eagles on trees, but flowers, insects, and other mini-subjects, mostly from a distance of about twenty feet. It takes a little getting used to, framing up a shot of something that tiny from that far away, but, on mornings that the birds have decided to sleep in, I can at least find something to do to avoid moaning and pouting, two behaviours that birders specifically frown upon.

The other thing I do to isolate things even further is to zoom in at the shortest focal length that the lens will allow and under-expose by about a stop and a half. If I can’t de-emphasize the background with bokeh, then I’ll just surround my subject with inky black. Either way, instead of spending the day grousing that I don’t have the correct tool, I’ve become more comfortable with asking what I do have to work a little counter-intuitively. Because, after all, excusing oneself for not getting the picture “because I brought the wrong gear” is, well, for the birds.

LIFE LEAKS

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE CAMERA IS THE MOST INTRUSIVE INVENTION EVER UNLEASHED ON THE WORLD, and the world has been altered forever by its peering, prying eye. That is both a negative and positive statement.

It has to be, since the fruits of photography are, on a good day, a mixed blessing. This unique bit of Industrial-Age machinery has, over several centuries now, investigated, invaded, illuminated and violated all of us. We simultaneously embrace this phenomenon and recoil from it. We hope its all-seeing orb won’t expose our particular secrets, but we cannot look away when it probes the dark truths of others.

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Like many, I shoot through open windows as I walk through neighborhoods. I record what I tend to call “life leaks”. I maintain what I tell myself is a respectful distance, working hard not to capture anything starkly intimate about the lives that are concealed within houses, apartments, shops. I am only after shards, suggestions. Hints at the real wonders within. After all, it’s not, strictly speaking, my business, is it? Or might it be?

The camera, at any given time, is engaged in several ongoing chronicles of horrors and triumphs of the human condition in various global “hot spots”. It has ever been thus. We look in on people’s daily toils, invited or not. We are peepers. This is not always a good thing, nor is it always a bad thing. Sometimes, as in the image shown here, our curiosity about how people live is rather benign. Look at the way the light plays inside that house. Oh, what’s that picture on the wall? What’s around that corner, I wonder? Other times, our curiosity is reportorial, even prurient. What happened to this building? Is there anyone left alive inside? Who did this? It’s a short walk from childlike wonder to journalistic horror shows. I wonder where the line is.

I wonder if there even is a line.

Since the invention of the camera, we are all witnesses. And we are all subject matter.

I worry about walking a tightrope between wanting to know and demanding to know, and how we can all stay aloft on that rope. I don’t have a one-size-fits-all answer. We, every one of us, has to make that call one image at a time.

INVISIBLE BUT NOT UNSEEN

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Carousels are wonderful, but can fall, pictorially, into the “done to death” category

By MICHAEL PERKINS

CENTURIES AGO, WHEN THE ROMAN WRITER PUBLILIUS COINED THE PHRASE “Familiarity breeds contempt” he was speaking about how human relations go sour based on an overdose of closeness or a lack of variety. But he also unwittingly described the challenge of photographing an exhaustively recognizable subject. The more a thing has been shot, the more we feel challenged to say something fresh about it, and the more we grow disgusted with how utterly, ugh, familiar it is.

I have been shooting carousels my entire life, with a wiiiiiiide variance in result. Most of my attempts just fall into the technically-challenged category: blurs, underexposures, tilted horizons, lousy compositions, etc. Others are okay, specs-wise, but ho-hum in effect. I keep trying to make pictures that export the grand visual ballet of romance that I carry in my brain, a rich, gauzy collective memory dipped in gaudy colour and memory. The problem, of course, is that what comes out of the camera is…just another picture of a carousel.

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The housings and surrounds for classic carousels add context and a little more mystery. 

Recently I realized that the carousel itself is part of the problem, since it contains too much information that, through millions of attempts, we all have taken for granted. Nothing new can be suggested by just continuing to click away at the thing, while, if one backs off a bit, nearly backing the thing out of the frame entirely to show more of its surrounding context, something fresher may actually emerge.

As seen above, the carousel inside the 1916 Looff Hippodrome building on the Santa Monica pier in California, the very rig that Paul Newman’s character in The Sting used to entertain his bevy of, ahem, tarts, is beautiful not only in its own right, but for the immense octagonal wooden barn that houses it…so much so that shooting an image that primarily highlights the structure with just a hint of racing horses (seen directly above) at least lets a little fresh air into the process. The barn’s high arched windows look directly out to the Pacific and bathe the interior with warm, comforting light, which also softens the deeper hues of the ride itself. I shot about a dozen conventional lights-and-horses frames, but once I got home I found I liked this better. Sometimes when something has been talked to death in pictures, it’s at least a relief to change the conversation a bit, if only by pivoting ninety degrees.

MACHINES VS. MOTIVES

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE RELEASE OF NEARLY EVERY TECHNICAL INNOVATION OR FRESH PRODUCT in the photography field is now preceded by a flurry of sample images from beta testers, the favored few shooters selected by makers to take the new gear out for a trial run and post image galleries of how it went, all the better to make you part with your money, my child. The impression created by this advance guard is that, on day one of its entry into the world at large, this or that piece of kit already has a global army of slavish devotees that think the New Thingamabob is the best thing since gene splicing, and so why haven’t you ordered yours yet?

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New! Improved!

Back when I was in the ad biz, this maneuver was called engineering desire, while the practice of making you want an item simply because others had it was known as “ask the man who owns one”.  In both cases, since photographers, and not cameras, make images, it’s a good idea to cast a suspicious eye on beta testing hype bulletins and what useful info we hope to glean from them.

Primarily, demo galleries on new gear shows you how the devices work, but they really don’t show you how to use them, and, believe me, there is a difference between the two concepts. Sample pictures illustrate what the lens or camera is technically capable of, while you, and only you, have to settle the question of whether it will help you better express yourself. The thingy might create stunning sunsets, for example, but that’s only of value if you want to shoot stunning sunsets. And if the gear in question delivers a very specific effect, how much, really, will that effect figure in your overall output? Does the item fill your needs or just fill up your bag?

Beta testers now create buzz for a product the way marketers used to with their initial commercials and print ads. It’s thought that flooding the potential market for a toy with samples from shooters who are “just like you” actually is a softer and more effective sell, as it creates a kind of tsunami of instant coverage and sorta-reviews for the stuff that seem to be “balanced”, even though most of it is underwritten by the companies themselves using their customers for lab rats. I don’t mean to say that this process isn’t of value, but it pays to recall all the trends in photography, from instant prints to HDR, that were sold as invaluable to the consumer, only to pan out as, well, cool things to play with, but far from essential.

UNWITTING TRIBUTES

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Wall Be Right There, 2022. As soon as I snapped this, something about it seemed familiar…

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I CANNOT IMAGINE MAKING PHOTOGRAPHS without having someone sitting on my shoulder.

Not a squirming kid hitching a piggyback ride at a theme park: I’m talking about the invisible presence of photographers past, those influences that are so strong that you might imagine you can see their faces as you peer through the viewfinder. Men and women whose approaches so strongly flavor your own view of the world that it can be difficult not to directly channel them into your work.

Of course, we often deliberately pay tribute to those who’ve gone before us. We might purposefully re-interpret their works, or, in our moments of maximum hubris, even convince ourselves that we can improve on them. But in many more cases, their power, as teachers, to mold our perceptions leaks out quietly, buried inside what we assume is our own “original” style. We might not be actively trying to emulate or steal, but, once we back off from this image or that, we have to admit that the fingerprints of one or another of our photo gods can be clearly detected.

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Pete Turner’s cover for Wes Montgomery’s Road Song album, 1968

That’s what happened to me on a recent walk to a nature preserve. The walking path parallels a long support wall that stands beneath a traffic overpass, giving it that receding-into-infinity look, and something about the composition appealed to me, although I was not consciously thinking of any particular artist’s work. A door just opened in my head and I said yes.

Later, when I was correcting and cropping the shot, its inspiration finally hit me, as I recalled the legendary Pete Turner’s cover shot the the album Road Song by Wes Montgomery, shot in the late 1960’s. Pete created nearly all of the album covers for jazz producer Creed Taylor’s CTI label of the period, most of them abstract in nature with no direct link to either a song or record title. This shot, with his wondrous wide-angle framing a barrier trailing off to the horizon in a bluish dusk, with only the tail lights of a distant car to anchor the wall in real space, was, and is, a masterpiece, the kind of highly commercial, mass appeal masterpiece that he regularly (and seemingly effortlessly) knocked off for hit records by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Deodato, Hubert Laws, Freddie Hubbard, and George Benson, releases that added a stunning visual signature to the Boomer generation’s definition of jazz.

By comparison, my unwitting tribute to Pete, which basically happened on a subconscious level, was fairly cluttered and thus nowhere near as direct in its impact, but I was happy, rather than sad, that at least a part of my love for his work had sneaked into my own. I couldn’t fill his shoes, certainly, but it was fun to even accidentally slide a few toes into his slippers.

ALL OF US ARE ALL OF US NOW

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE MOST POWERFUL ROLE THAT PHOTOGRAPHY CAN PLAY DURING WARTIME, or, in fact, in the midst of any human catastrophe, is to find the images that unify: symbolic pictures that show the world, quickly and clearly, what it’s like for certain people under the gun of history, and how their faces, their fears, belong to everyone. We seek and need photographs that connect us.

At any moment, many of us are more than half a planet away from some of the biggest conflicts of our time, and so our ability to directly bear witness is limited. However, we avidly follow the most inclusive of the pictures that emerge, looking for our own lives within the shock and horror etched on the faces of people we will likely never meet. In normal times, we focus, strangely, on how different we are from each other: in dire times, we realize how very much alike we really are.

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Sculptors, painters and photographers seek the universal in their depiction of human suffering.

The statue “Athena’s Prayer”, sculpted by American southwestern artist James Muir, was dedicated in 2018 for a war memorial plaza in the Arizona town of Fountain Hills. The work was commissioned to give special honor to the increasing role of women in recent global conflicts in a space that mostly memorializes men who served in earlier American engagements. The young woman stands with her helmet in her arms, looking up to heaven in a mixture of wonder and reverence. Or at least that was the stated intention of the artist.

On my most recent visit to the plaza, with the Ukranian invasion the stuff of daily headlines, the statue’s facial features began, to me, to more closely suggest not a professional fighter, but a citizen-soldier, someone newly enlisted into an existential struggle for survival, not in some far-off battlefield, but in her own neighborhood. Instead of her upward gaze being an entreaty to Heaven, it seemed to me now to show her watching the skies for signs of fresh Hell, and so I shot her with a softened, almost ethereal look, wreathed in a dark vignette, her torso cropped away to emphasize just the essentials of her emotions. I wanted to make her into what we all seek in times of turmoil…..a universal image, a recognizable mask of the common fears of the common person.

After 9/11, the phrase “we are all New Yorkers now” found resonance in the popular vocabulary, and it has been repeatedly customized over the past twenty-some years to embrace other tragedies, so that “we are all” whoever we most pity or with whom we pledge solidarity at a given moment. And alongside that sentiment are the pictures, pictures that show us that all suffering, all love of country, all sacrifice wears the same human features. We cannot readily wrap our arms around those who suffer so far away from us. But, at least in our choice of pictorial proxies, we can wrap their hearts around our own.

PLAYING IN THE RIGHT KEYS

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Listening For The Lark, 2022. A monochrome conversion from a color master shot. 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

SOME OF OUR PHOTOGRAPHS CERTIFY THEMSELVES TO US AS “RIGHT” OR “WRONG” over time, not registering instantly as either keepers or pitchers, but slowly making the case for their final disposition. These are the truly tricky shots, the ones whose success or failure is not readily apparent upon first, or second, or even fifth glance. Such images go in and out of the workflow bin again and again, sometimes over years, while we decide whether we recognize them as our own offspring.

Sometimes it means we partially embrace a shot, loving it in spite of a slight technical miscalculation or a composition that’s slightly off. Other times, we trust/mistrust our original intention, which is French for “what was I thinking?”. In recent years, as I’ve returned to the tonal range of my first days as a shooter, I often stick pictures in the “still under consideration” pile over the choice of whether to re-render them in monochrome. I often think of color and b/w as two different arrangements of the same theme, or maybe a song played in one of two very distinct keys.

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The color original.

Since mono was the default of my earliest days, I naturally learned to shoot in it first. Once color became the go-to for most photography, I deferred to that. I don’t intentionally shoot my master shots in mono because it means pre-empting a choice that I might want to exercise later. You can easily go from color to no color, but,…. well you know the argument, and so that seems to mark me as a conversion person. Black and white is a choice, but not if you had no other choice in the first place, right? Mono has its own tonal vocabulary and creates a separate mood or priority of light than color. And for that reason, as well as the need to weigh and re-weigh my options pretty much forever, many of the pictures I can’t decide to love or hate hinge on the strengths and weaknesses or the two tonal “keys”.

Is color more bold, or can a more dramatic statement be made in its absence? Does monochrome tantalize, tease the appetite for more information, stimulate the imagination, and does it do so more effectively than a garish explosion of hue? Which of the two modes is, for me, in this particular instance, more “authentic”? And is that what I even want in the first place?

There are lots of images which cry out to be completed, to have their case file marked “closed” with a final determination of their value. But if art is about forcing flexibility where some would favor rigidity, then it’s probably a desirable thing for us not to rush to judgement on some of our pictures. Maybe they came into the world fully formed, and maybe not. But maybe, after all, it’s us who need to become more complete, in a variety of ways.

TRUST ME, I’M A PHOTOGRAPH

By MICHAEL PERKINS

OVER THE YEARS, YOU AND I HAVE SHARED MANY DISCUSSIONS on the meaning of the old saw “the camera doesn’t lie”, which just may be the most ridiculous utterance in the history of photography. So let me warm myself on a chill winter Sunday by heaping more fuel on the fire.

Whatever your concept of objective truth, it must be evident to anyone who’s ever taken pictures that there is an unbridgeable gap between what the looking-machine sees and what it is able to convey. Some of this gap is purely technical, due to the limits of the science of abstracting and stopping time and trapping it inside a box. And some of it happens because the initial narrator in a photographic tale is the photographer himself, and God knows our veracity varies wildly person-to-person.

That is, we are, to one degree or another, liars.

In the 19th-century, the “doesn’t lie” maxim was likely borne of people trying to initially champion the camera, not as a cruel assassin to painting, but as yet another proof that the industrial age, with all its new tools for measurement and calibration of all human activities, had produced yet another marvel, a miraculous device that could faithfully record any event with the precision of a seismograph or a microscope. It was an argument for welcoming the camera into the pantheon of scientific instruments. But such a boast turned a blind eye to the fact that, from day one, photographers were using images to distort and deceive, as well as to inspire or create.

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Part of the photograph’s power to lie is fed by our refusal to believe that it can lie in the first place. How can this be? We logically know, centuries on, that it is, at best, a flawed arbiter of fact. We have seen how easy it can be pressed into the service of tyrants and dictators, how truth itself can become contorted into whatever contour we want to serve our needs, aided in part by the “evidence” of the camera. And yet, we emotionally invest belief in photographs, instead of seeing them as merely interpretative, like painting or music. Ironically, we even take obviously manipulated images, such as the carousel seen here (a montage of nearly a dozen separate frames, with plenty of color and texture tampering added) and grant that, by virtue of not being “real”, actually reveal something that a mere documentary picture might not. Try to figure that one out.

In an era in which truth is, as Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty said, whatever we say it is, it’s good to recall that a picture is only a picture, made by people, whose motives and agendas are inevitably part of the creative process. They can testify to both truth and lies, and we should never be passive in how we take in their information.

PRELUDES AND POSTLUDES

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PROFESSIONAL PHOTOJOURNALISTS KNOW THAT ARRIVAL TIME IS CRUCIAL. Show up before the story gets underway and you shoot empty podiums and uncut ribbons. Show up after the event, and you’re watching the janitor sweep away its debris. Making a picture of a set thing in its best moment is largely luck, however, and just because you are either too early or too late for the action doesn’t mean that you’re robbed of a story.

Anticipation, at least the right kind, can be as dramatic as the promised happening. In some cases, even more so, since many “big moments” can fail to live up to the hype. Just ask the International Olympic Committee. Likewise the aftermath of a key event can produce its own letdown or cool-off energy that may also be grist for the camera. What I’m suggesting is that before’s and after’s are not necessarily the “wrong” times to comment on something. Both the prelude and the postlude have their own visual grammar, if you develop an eye for reading what they have to say.

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Party Of Three, 2022

On the morning that I caught this scene, I had to leave the park I was in well ahead of the guest of honor’s arrival. Thus the only picture I could make of his birthday party was the way it might look when he first clapped eyes on it. Everything about this scene appealed to me, although I had to look back at the picture to appreciate just what I was appreciating (stay with me for a moment). For starters, I just loved the simple, low-tech homemadeness of the thing. The way the various tree-anchored balloons bounced and bobbled in the light breeze. The way the midday sun caught and amplified all the colors and helped them pop. The thrill of imagining a three-year-old boy taking in the scene of all those flying and floating dinosaurs, as well as the raptors on the tablecloth. It looked like a blueprint for success. I had to wait on the wind to balance the composition by flying the balloons into the best position, but other than that, it was a point-and-shoot without a lot of over-thinking.

The only thing missing for me, later, lie in wishing that I could have sneaked back for a look at the  crumbled cake, the popped balloons, the discarded gift wrap. A kind of bookend to the day. But even though I hadn’t witnessed either the actual party or its denouement, I didn’t really need to: I had already witnessed pure joy.

FROZEN FLIGHTS

By MICHAEL PERKINS

SHORTLY AFTER THE TURN OF THE 21st CENTURY, SCULPTOR TODD McGRAIN completed a series of wondrous statues dedicated to the memory of five different birds rendered extinct not in antiquity, like the prehistoric dodo, but by the encroachment of human excesses of the fairly recent world. In all five cases, the subjects of what would become known as The Lost Bird Project were hounded into oblivion by over-hunting, loss of habitat, and other charming habits of the planet’s dominant and negligent stewards. This quintet of quietly minimal monuments, as magnificent as they are as art, were fated to become even more important as carefully placed reminders of what we have done, and what we must not fail, going forward, to do. 

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The Heath Hen, one of five Todd McGrain sculptures memorializing recently extinct species of birds. 

Not content to merely let the statues remain in some permanent gallery setting, McGrain set about on a nationwide odyssey to identify the locales where the birds* were last seen before vanishing, and to convince the current controllers of those lands to accept the statues as living history lessons, by  permitting their permanent installation at, if you like, the scene of the environmental crime. He soon learned how hard it is to give someone a gift they never thought to ask for, navigating the ebb and swell of the tides of diplomacy, federal red tape and even active opposition to the bequests. Finally, he was able to find homes for all five statues, visually recording the quest and eventually becoming a documentary film maker in his own right. 

The Lost Bird Project is still an active endeavor, continuing to fund conservation education through sale of that resulting film. Even at that, McGrain had to admit that the statues’ impact was limited to whomever might visit the installations in person, and so, to keep the works from being caged off, away from the general public, he also cast a duplicate set of the figures, and has sent them continually around the country on loan to a variety of venues, such as the Phoenix Zoo, which is where I made the above image.

I feel that photography can serve as the third leg of the visual testimony that McGrain has now carried on for nearly a quarter of a century. The reasoning goes that, if the copies are less limited in their ability to teach and influence than the originals, then it is through photographs by thousands of us, in dozens of locales, that the word can be spread exponentially. The camera helps us bear witness, teaching history by lighting, annihilating both time and distance to extend the wingspan of these essential messengers, canaries in a the coal mine of our collective neglect. 

 

*the birds and their last known whereabouts: the Great Auk (Fogo Island, Newfoundland), the Labrador Duck (Elmira, New York), the Passenger Pigeon (Columbus, Ohio), the Carolina Parakeet (Okeechobee, Florida), and the Heath Hen (Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts).

TECH’d IN THE HEAD

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Curiouser and curiouser: welcome to the camera format wars, final rendition.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IF YOU WANT TO SIMULATE THE EXPERIENCE OF LEAPING OUT OF A PLANE WITHOUT A CHUTE, then get into the business of predicting trends in photography. The boneyard of critical writing is crammed with the carcasses of wizard wannabes who boldly pronounced what the Next Big Thing in camera tech was going to be. Still, even given that caveat, there are some big tectonic shifts in Camera Land that even a dullard like me can see coming.

Smart people call these shifts “inflection points”. These are the folks who get great grades on term papers. Me, I just say, “hey, is this anything?” Whatever your wording, we seem to be at such a place as of this writing , which is early 2022.

Little more than a decade after the introduction of the first mirrorless cameras, prognosticators great and small now seem uniformly confident in predicting that this is the year that DSLRs go on life support and the family calls in the priest. Recently, no less a cadre than the venerable PetaPixel predicted that both Canon and Nikon would end their commitment to DSLR development and model introduction in 2022. And, suddenly, they are far from alone. The argument goes that, just as SLRs were a forward leap in convenience and performance over rangefinder cameras, so mirrorless does what DSLRs do more accurately and far easier. Normally such forecasts would be largely a matter of opinion, but something new has been added.

That “something” is the fact that more manufacturers than ever are closing the DSLR product line on both ends, both discontinuing older models with no comparable successor and in bringing fewer new models, especially entry-level-priced models, to the market for the first time. And then there is the raw science, which says that, minus the bulky box-and-mirror part of DSLR’s viewing apparatus, lenses in mirrorless cameras can be placed extremely close to the focal plane, affecting sharpness, low-light performance, chromatic aberrations, and, yes, the total curb weight of the unit. This also means that your older DSLR lenses, with adaptation, might well work better on a mirrorless body. Other factors in this sea change include people like myself who are going to mirrorless in order to upgrade to full-frame for the first time, and figure they might as well go with a format that manufacturers are now throwing their full weight behind.

You and I both know several “I’ll never” people who will stick with their chosen format until the last dog is hung, and mazel tov to them. Shoot what you want, love what you shoot, etc. However, when the makers of a particular tech are cutting back on new models of it, even going so far as to reduce choices and support with the existing models in that format, including their best sellers, it might be time, as they say in Hollywood, to strike the set.

WHEN MORE IS, WELL, MORE

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I AM CERTAINLY GUILTY, in these pages, of frequently harping on the need for economy in the composition of a photograph, of working purposely to say the most with the least. I’ve rhapsodized about how clutter and crowding can ruin a picture’s ability to communicate cleanly, and how best to streamline one’s vision with repeated layers of editing and cropping, in an attempt to pare away any extraneous junk that gets between a photo and its audience’s eye.

And in many cases, I still feel I am right.

Except when I am completely wrong.

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Clutter & Buck, 2022

Occasionally, we’re faced with trying to capture a subject whose very complexity or density is not in the way of the point, but is the point. Intricate gears in a machine. A teeming crowd filling the frame with conflicting destinations and motivations. Or here, a rustic chicken coop that is all about noise, crowding, clutter, randomness. Certainly it would be possible to frame a picture of this subject with minimal elements, limited textures, going “clean” in a ruthless way. But that would result in a completely different image than what I wanted from this photo.

And so this is a kind of mess, this picture, and yet I am so sure that it’s the only true thing I could have made under the circumstances. In musical terms, composition is a deliberate arrangement of elements, and can be either richly layered or spare. The composer, wielding either a pen or a camera, must decide how best to get the music out.  Photography proceeds from a given set of rules, but in breaking those rules, we decide whether they should have been written in the first place. I still love spare subject matter for many of my pictures, but sometimes, just sometimes, a song is best played fortissimo, with all the instruments blaring at once.

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