By MICHAEL PERKINS
PATTERNS ARE KIND OF A PHOTOGRAPHIC ABSOLUTE, in that they require no context for comprehension in an image. We needn’t explain such arrangements of negative and positive space, such as the latticework of a single snowflake: their mere existence is story enough. We find endless fascination in the spirals within the heart of a flower, the alternating light and shadow inside a stairwell. Of course, we can certainly take the time to remark further about them, but the best photographs of patterns go way beyond our ability to justify them with mere words. In a visual medium, they are their own best testimony.
Other patterns resist interpretation for the reason that they are clearly of another time, so far removed from our own present-day experience as to be meaningless to us beyond their shape and contours. We can view mosaics from a vanished culture, but are prevented from deciphering their symbols: we find a flute from centuries past but can’t read the notated music that was intended to be played on it. In more recent terms, the technology that remade the planet during the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century has left behind a rusting legacy of devices which speak very little as to their original functions. Masses of gears, wheels and belts which once were the stuff of everyday existence now need captions to even be comprehended by our eyes. Thus, as visual subjects, their patterns are so obsolete as to be abstract, presenting merely a mixture of textures and tones to our contemporary cameras.
The world is moving so quickly that even the wildly speculative “future” gizmos seen at the World’s Fairs of the 1960’s already need auxiliary context to be fully appreciated. In one respect, as purely visual artists, we are actually freed by this phenomenon. When a thing becomes unanchored from its original purpose, the photographer can assign any purpose to it that he pleases. The object is nothing, and so, paradoxically, it can be everything. Consider the mass of machinery in the above shot. Were I not to tell you its original use, would you recognize it as part of the machinery to be found in a flour milling facility from the 1800’s? Does knowing or not knowing that fact detract from its impact as an image? Are you all right with patterns that are truly absolute, scenes that are merely themselves, and nothing more?
You are always in charge of what you want your pictures to say. You can record events and people at face value, or you can imbue them with additional meaning. Or no meaning whatsoever. The camera is thus just a servo-mechanism. It’s not in charge of saying what the world is. That power, that responsibility, has always been yours and yours alone.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
HOW MANY SECONDS DID IT TAKE FOR YOU TO IDENTIFY THE EDIFICE seen in the above image? I’m guessing that your response time was predictably brief. That’s the power of a photographic icon, a power which redounds to the benefit of all interpretive photographers. At the time of this post’s publication, it is exactly sixty years since the opening of Frank Lloyd Wright’s final masterpiece, New York’s Guggenheim Museum. In those six decades, the “Gugg” has more than delivered on its promise to provide a unique setting for the most adventurous art of the age. But in the process, it has also become a piece of art, a statement no less resonant than the thousands of paintings and sculptures it has housed.
We’ve often written here, as many have, of the challenge of photographing things that, over time, nearly the entire world seems to have snapped. Make your own list: the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids, the Empire State, Big Ben, all names linked with objects or sites which fully meet any criteria for an icon. These things are so very familiar that, some billions of images into the game, they can become static as subject matter, resistant to revealing anything new about themselves. We admire the postcard view of a place and work to replicate it endlessly, almost making it meaningless. And yet, with the right approach, even a weathered subject can be reborn inside your camera.
In the case of the Guggenheim, a place which stores art is itself an art masterpiece, almost to the point of eclipsing the works that are showcased within it. Its outward form is one of a handful of things that is so recognizable that it resists stasis. It can, visually, be almost endlessly reinterpreted, if we look for the correct idea. It can be simplified to a collection of light and dark planes: it can be negativized, filtered, cropped almost to abstraction (as we have here), reimagined from any angle, and serve as an unmistakable cue to our collective brains. Certainly a simple photographic recording of the building in its natural state (the post card shot), as seen in the small inset image, is effective, because the structure itself is so objectively powerful. However, that same view can be sliced almost to the dimensions of a view through a mail slot and it will still communicate what it is, still generate strength. That’s what an icon can do for photography: become the gift that keeps on giving.
The Guggenheim was created specifically as a home for various mid-century art movements that had no official home within the conventional museum community of the Eisenhower era. Its design passed through many hands before completion, which happened after the deaths of both Frank Lloyd Wright and Solomon Guggenheim. Even after substantial revision and interference from people who frankly should never have been allowed admission to the place, the “Gugg” emerged with its essential elements intact, so far advanced as a public space that even now, sixty years on, it seems as if it’s just arriving for the first time. Some icons not only indelibly define themselves but also the times that created them, with a permanence that continues to feed the imaginations of other artists looking to craft their own visions. One critic once described the museum as a birthday cake. Perhaps that’s its magic: an occasion of joy, alight with illumination, imbued with the power to grant your every wish.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PRIOR TO AROUND 1920, photographs of objects were generally naturalistic recordings of objects as they were popularly perceived in the actual world. Apples were shot to resemble apples, trees to emulate trees, and so forth. Techniques that had served photography in the nineteenth century, which favored the same objective rendering of things in the same way that painters did, persisted until generally after the First World War, after which both camps began to question whether reality was, indeed, the only way to portray the world. Some shooters began to veer away from any painterly softness or interpretation, declaring focal sharpness and documentary truth over the dreamy qualities of the canvas. Others, however, took another page from paint’s playbook, opting to see compositions as arrangements of light or shapes, and nothing more. Everyday objects were filtered through a new way of seeing, and the ordinary was drastically reconsidered beyond the act of mere recording. Photographers began to also be interpreters.
One of the most stunning examples of this new freedom were Edward Weston’s “pepper” images of the 1920’s, a series that re-envisioned vegetables as new somethings that were reminiscent of abstract nudes. Weston’s monochromes were, first and foremost, compositions of line, absent the context that the normal world typically afforded. Suddenly, shapes were absolute: the photograph didn’t have to be about anything: it merely was, in much the same way that modernist paintings re-framed the way people saw faces, bodies, architecture. Some were shocked, even frightened by the newfound freedom Weston and others were championing, while others felt liberated. As ever, the best photographs sparked the best arguments.
I was reminded recently what a simple revolution can be created by such a minor warping of the visual sense when I unpacked a pepper that I felt could have escaped from Weston’s own garden. The gnarly thing seemed, even before my memory had made a connection back to his work, like a ripe, red set of lips, something between the cartoon kiss of a Jessica Rabbit and the Rolling Stones’ lascivious logo. The curviness of the pepper proved too seductive for me to just start immediately carving it up for salad, so I attached a macro lens and started to take a tour around the thing. At one angle, the vegetable almost looked like a mouth in profile, but with perhaps the faintest suggestion of an overall crimson face as well. The entire exercise took about three minutes, after which the pepper dutifully kept its prior appointment with my homemade balsamic dressing. The one fun takeaway was reminding myself that, no offense to reality, but it’s fancy that makes photographs.
Just think what kind of portrait I could make from a rutabaga with attitude.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT WAS PRETTY COMMON, just a few years ago, to find a county fair or amusement park that boasted its own “old-timey” photo booth, a space where families could don historic costumes and pose for a simulated sepia daguerreotype. It was the start of a trend that continues to the digital age, in which the bulky, balky technology of Photography Eras Past becomes romanticized as an effect to be applied to contemporary images. Or, to put it in practical terms, everything old is new again….in an app.
Faking the past via digital doctoring can provide a unique aspect to a newly-taken snap, or it can just produce what I call the “that’s cool” effect, which masks the general purpose of the original and drowns it in gimmicky goop. But the temptation to tweak is strong: apps are cheap (or free) and it takes mere minutes to determine if a given one will add anything to your work beyond mere novelty. One such example is the wide selection of faux tintype emulators available at a click.
The tintype (which was actually exposed on iron plates coated with dried collodion) was never as sharp as its predecessor, the glass-plate daguerreotype, but it was so simple to take and process by comparison that it effectively liberated the camera from the studio, sending field photographers in tented wagons out across the country to shoot every aspect of American life, including, notably, the battles of the Civil War. Eventually paper positives and celluloid film spelled the technology’s doom, but it’s uneven textures and tones continue to evoke a vanished world.
I very seldom use tintype apps after I’ve taken a shot. It seems as if I’m admitting that the image somehow wasn’t enough, that it needed “help” of some kind. I prefer to take pictures from within the app itself, allowing it to use my phone’s camera. The idea is to conceive of the picture beforehand as benefitting from the tintype effect, to pair its “look” with its intention. The tonal range and uneven detail of the tintype can be thought of as another kind of abstraction, and your choice of narrative need not be limited to picturing Uncle Fred as Buffalo Bill. As with so many apps, actual practice can make the difference between a tool and a toy.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
(AS YOU READ THIS, I, along with most inwardly inclined photographers, am spending the final days of the present calendar year trying to make some sense of whatever images I’ve attempted over the past twelve months. But I’m only partly interested in compiling so-called “best of” lists, since it’s really up to other eyes to decide whether any one group of my pictures can collectively be called successful. Simply, I can’t really judge how well I’ve done. Not alone, anyway.)
What I try to do instead is to determine if pictures from a given year arced or tended in a particular direction. One thing I have noticed about my work is that it seems to fall, generally, into subject years and light years……groups of shots that are either centered on what I shoot or the conditions under which I do so. 2018 seemed far and away to be about making compositions of light rather than capturing locales.
In more than a few photographs over the past year, I almost seemed to be dragging brighter surfaces out of solid darkness…..but only just enough to make a few details register, leaving significant portions of the finished image lingering in shadow….deliberately under-defined. I have always liked this chiaroscuro, or “Rembrandt” light effect, but this year, I seemed to be aggressively embracing it.
The shot seen here, then, is not meant to explain the building I was shooting, but to reduce it to a pure instance of color, light and design. In a different situation, the picture might have been more reportorial, but in this case, the arrangement of line and pattern was the entire goal of the photo. So, at the end of 2018, no photographic “greatest hits” list for me, just a trend line showing that my curiosity is tracking in a certain measurable direction. Photography is just as much about attempts as it is about achievements. At different junctures, we value one over the other.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE WORD “APPROPRIATION” HAS BECOME A PERMANENT PART OF THE ACTIVE VOCABULARY OF VISUAL ARTS, and I am never consistently sure how I feel about it.
Like the term “found object”, things labeled as “appropriated” from other works seem to cast a shadow over photography, or over its potential for originality. Can the artist ever really produce a thing that is completely new? And if so, does it make him dishonest to re-use something that’s been any part of someone else’s work? Can you generate an image that shows, for example, a frame from a motion picture that someone else directed? How about a random glimpse of a frozen moment from a television show? Are those who admire a painting in a gallery and snap an image of it plagiarists? Additionally, the entire web-era issue of intellectual property complicates the question even further. Even if a photographer’s motives in “appropriating” are artistically pure, is he/she creating a tribute….or perpetrating a theft?
I have seldom dipped my toe into this particular swamp, mostly since I want to create work that is as personally unique as possible. I certainly love the idea of “standing on the shoulders of giants”, but I don’t like to think that it’s because I’m too weak to walk under my own power. So let’s analyze an instance in which I try to straddle both sides of the tribute/theft debate.
What you see here is a most particular exercise with a very specially selected image. The original picture, as seen within the page frame, is an illustration from The Practice Of Contemplative Photography by Andy Carr, a book designed to train the reader’s eye to see in less conventional ways, to examine the gulf between conception and perception. The authors, Andy Carr and Michael Wood, have deliberately set forth a series of exercises created to force photographers to develop alternatives method of seeing. What I glean from this is that they don’t want to hold any single photographic approach as sacred….perhaps even those they themselves put forward as artists.
The composite image seen here is an attempt to take Michael Wood’s beautiful picture, a minimalist shot which shows a single orange leaf balanced on a ledge, and imagine what kind of picture might be a visual sequel to it. I used a Lensbaby Sweet 35 optic to keep the original photo’s sharp focus on his leaf, which, as it trails down the stream of added orange potpourri pieces, transitions to softness….as if, in a dream, the leaves might be seeming to erupt out of the page. So, if you’re keeping score, the starting photograph is shown in the context of the book in which it originally appeared, with added objects that I have arranged for a new overall photo-creation of my own. Please note that in every single posting of this picture, I have given specific credit to the original artists/authors, and represented it as an appropriation, the use of elements not my own for a re-imaging that is my own. I would never seek credit for the original Wood image: it did serve, of course, as a springboard for something else. And, if at some time, I am asked by said creator to remove any and all traces of my composite from public platforms, I would acquiesce immediately.
Ever since Warhol began making silkscreens of photographs shot by other artists, which he then showed as Warhol “works”, this argument has mostly led to…..more arguments. And, as stated, I seldom find myself in this particular playpen. It’s simply too tough to be sure of all my motivations.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT SEEMS ODD to hear someone refer to part of their photographic output as “abstract”…..as if the rest of their work somehow isn’t. I guess it depends on what you believe the word ” abstract” means, as well as what is meant by other words like, say, “reality”. For me , the whole discussion seems overthought. To my mind, all photography, all art is “abstract”.
To abstract something is to extract it from its original context, to re-frame it, take it from one form and paste it into another. And there is no way not to do that with a photograph. We don’t show reality. We show shards, fragments, selectively sliced slivers of time. Even if we take great care to take a no-frills, documentary approach to the recording of an image, once we click the shutter, we have abstracted that moment from reality, making an editorial choice to pluck away this instant versus all others.
One way to illustrate this process is to consider the image at the top of the page, which represents a virtually endless chain of abstraction. Thinking backwards from this photo of a museum exhibit:
In the beginning, God creates man, an abstraction of himself. Then Michelangelo creates an abstraction of God (and a lot of other Biblical superstars) by depicting Him in the act of creation, even as he (the painter) is also abstracting representations of the Creator’s creatures. Centuries later, art historians take selective pictures of Michelangelo’s massive abstractions on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, abstracting them further by using selected excerpts as book illustrations. Inspired by those books, curators in Manhattan create an exhibit honoring Michelangelo’s ceiling by reproducing it as a miniature, assembling a replica composed of dozens of backlit transparencies suspended over guests at the Metropolitan museum in an artificial abstraction of the original Sistine frescoes. Finally, using a selective-focus art lens in 2017, I abstract those same guests to blobby smears of color and make editorial choices about which single panel in the faux-ceiling exhibit to shoot in sharp focus, thus hinting that it’s somehow more important than all the others.
Photographs snatch away parts of the real. To use a camera is to abstract that reality. Every snap of the shutter is a calculation of choice. Therefore choose wisely.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S HARD TO ATTRACT ATTENTION IN HOLLYWOOD, a town that shouts in five dimensions, a million colors, and four thousand decibels about almost everything. Here, in the town that hype calls home, design always swings for the fences, and Subtle Is For Sissies. Small wonder, then, that photographers, who typically love to play top this with their peers, find that Tinseltown and greater L.A. are already at gold medal status in playing the very same game. I’ll see your weird, and raise you two weirders.
As a street shooter in Hollywood/L.A., you routinely witness the bizarre being passed off as the normal. As a consequence, the very act of visually commenting on this mad sensual overdose can make even your most prosaic shots seem like a trip through the looking glass. Words like stately, venerable, or traditional seem oddly out of place in the town that invented fourteen-story billboards and the Walk of Fame. Using a camera to say something new about it all can be a fool’s errand, or at least, a mental obstacle course.
Whenever I visit Los Angeles, I am constantly looking for some kind of reversal pattern, a way to treat the most outrageous visual artifacts on their heads. I don’t always succeed. I did, however, have fun trying, recently, to come up with a new way of seeing a very strange building, the Peterson Automotive Museum, located at the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, the outside of which has undergone a very radical facelift in recent years. From afar, the building seems to be a wild, untethered series of curves and swoops, a mobius strip of red and steel spaghetti floating in space in an abstract suggestion of motion. It’s a stunning bit of sculpture that actually is a wrap-around of the original, far more conventionally-shaped museum building beneath it.
And, as it turns out, that’s the way to reverse-engineer a photo of the museum, since it’s possible to walk behind the swirly facade and into a shadow-and-color-saturated buffer space that exists between it and the underlying structure. From inside said space you can view the outer bands as a peekaboo grid through which you can view neighboring buildings and local traffic, rather like looking between the slats of some big psychedelic set of venetian blinds. And that’s where I stood when taking the above shot with a Lensbaby Composer Pro lens with a fisheye optic, the aperture set at about f/5.6 to render the whole thing somewhat soft and dreamy. I’ll see your two weirders and raise you one bizarre.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MANY OF THE APPS BEING PEDDLED as post-production fixes for mobile photographs are one-trick ponies, limited in their range. This is less so than it once was, with new apps adding progressively more features, but there are still tons of single-purpose processes out there, gobbling up phone storage with apps that perform one task well. Want a second task? Download another app.
The fun part for me is to discover that, while a given app may have been created to solve a particular problem, it can also be used creatively to do something completely different. Take the example of the now-cliched creation of so-called “small planet” pictures, in which a standard landscape is spiraled into a ball shape, with its various tree and buildings now looking like features on a self-contained world, rather like the illustrations in The Little Prince. This process was once a somewhat complicated one, but, like almost everything else in the digital world, it’s been shorthanded to a few clicks and sliders in apps like Rollworld, which is not only cheap but insanely simple to use.
If you approach the use of such a specialized app in the simplest way, you’ll produce your five or ten little planet images (see photo at upper left corner), get the novelty boiled out of your blood, and then move on to something newer and shinier. However, Rollworld and programs like it can be a nice creative tool beyond their most obvious trick. The various sliders in RW let you not only roll your original linear image but control how it rolls, allowing a kind of folding-in, folding-out distortion. You can thus completely abstract even the most mundane cityscape into a symmetric pattern of textures, maximizing small things or relegating prominent features to the background. Other Rollworld sliders allow you to determine the tightness or looseness of the roll, to control the angle of the pitch, even swipe features from one part of the image across parts of the others to mirror or multiply specific items into a better symmetry. Call it Kaleidoscope-in-a-box.
I even import some of my standard DSLR images from various websites like Flickr (see above right) into my phone so they can be processed by the app as well. One problem: You want to save your end product at the highest possible file size. Even at that, some of them will only display well on monitors or the web, and may be too small for good resolution when printed out. This is a major problem with phone images in general: they are still designed, for the most part, to be outputted to other phones and screens.
The idea here is that many apps are capable of giving you more than the advertised effect if you play a little. It takes so little time and effort to experiment that you quickly build experimentation into your typical workflow. And that can only help you grow faster as a photographer.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
“REALITY”, THOUGHT TO BE the normal end product of the process of pointing a camera at something, is actually rather limiting. Sure, our little boxes were originally created as an accurate, even scientific means for recording our world.. a method more reliable, somehow, than the imprecision of the painter. Soon afterward, however, the camera longed for a soul of its own, or at least the painter’s freedom to make a subjective choice as to what “real” should look like.
Bottom line: for photographers, mere reality turned out to be, well, kind of a yawner.
To go even further, it seems to me that certain subjects actually call for a kind of unworldly, almost hallucinatory quality, an attempt to make things look not like what they are but how they feel. Of course, we can’t actually show emotions or states of mind, but various photographic techniques can, and should suggest them.
In visualizing ritual, ceremony, sacrament, or tradition, for example, you’re not merely chronicling activity. You’re also photographing mystery, or an extra dimension of consciousness. The above image, in terms of mere reality, is of a class for museum visitors curious to learn bout the Brazilian ritual of capoeira, a traditional fake-fighting martial arts performance that is performed during carnival and other national festivals. Now, you can shoot such a subject “realistically” (evenly lit, uniform focus, sharp detail), or aesthetically (dark, selectively blurred, even a little confusing), depending on what kind of feel you’re going for. This goes to the heart of interpretation. You’re not merely presenting reality: you are representing it.
Photographs originate in the mind, not in the camera, and so it must follow that there are as many “realities” as there are photographers.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY TIME I SEE SOMEONE working on a jigsaw puzzle, I can’t help but think that they’re missing all the fun. The idea of the project is, of course, to assemble enough pieces of a scene that it becomes recognizable. 200 pieces in: some kind of structure. 400 pieces in: looks like it’s made of iron, triangular maybe. 600 pieces in: oh, yeah, the Eiffel Tower!
But, whereas a picture puzzle is solved when the image looks complete enough, my favorite kind of photography centers on how few pieces of the puzzle can be supplied and still have the image communicate to the viewer. Formalists might call this minimalism: art curators might label it cubism: holy men in flowing robes might use the term zen. I just think of it as reducing pictures to the smallest number of components needed to convey ideas.
In fact, many photographic subjects actually present themselves in a kind of broken pattern right out of the gate, challenging us to create images from the spotty data they let through. For example, views through partially blocked windows, such as the one at the top of this page, in which what remains readable behind the darkened door and window framings, is more than enough to sell the message pizza shoppe.
For me, having everything spelled out to the Nth degree in a photograph is beyond boring. It’s much more interesting to engage the viewer in a kind of partnership in which he is looking on purpose and I am trying to maximize the power of my pitch, going as far beyond the obvious as I can while not letting the picture fly apart. The first minute I’ve snapped enough pieces into the puzzle to suggest the Eiffel Tower, I’m ready to leave the last 300 pieces in the box.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE HUMAN EYE HAS A SOFT SPOT FOR SYMMETRY, for countervailing energies that face off against each other in a composition. Design elements that pit left against right, top against bottom, even corner vs. corner appeal to a certain Math-Bach sense of balance in the universe. And, as does every other kind of visual art, photography builds strong images by “book-ending” elements in opposition, eye cues both tug toward the center and pull toward the edges.
Pictures benefit from this tension, this dynamic argument over what’s more dominant, or, more correctly, what’s dominant in this moment. Book-ending between extremes or contrasting forces is a visual kind of debate, a photographic arm-wrestling match. Sometimes shapes or things occupy opposing spaces in the frame are not, literally, fighting with each other, as in the two overlapping taxicabs seen above. Even so, the two yellow wedges at bottom left and top right in the frame are in a kind of balancing act with each other: call it a conversation.
In your own work, you’ve no doubt observed this visual tension occurring organically or even deliberately built it into a composition. An old building next to a new one: a tragic mask alongside a comic one: a kumquat facing off against a tomato. It doesn’t have to be dramatic to be effective. The bookends can be ornate Greek warriors or abstract slabs: it’s the opposition in the frame that starts the process of yin/yang, and lends a photograph extra heft.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOMETIMES I THINK THAT PHOTOGRAPHERS, especially beginners, needlessly hem themselves in by “pre-editing” their work. Being human, we all care, to some degree, about how our images “play” to various viewers, and so it’s understandable that we can be scared away from attempting certain things that are too jarring or disorienting to our intended audiences. We work to hard to avoid the attachment of certain labels to our pictures.
The “a” word, “abstract”, is one such label. It’s a scare word. And it can spook us out of truly innovative image-making.
Sure, we may know that, strictly speaking, abstraction really just means extraction, pulling a visual shorthand of essence out of a more complex subject. Rather than merely recording the full detail of an object in a photograph, the abstract photographer reduces it to its most effective basics. A baseball loses its stitches and writing and becomes just a sphere. Abstraction can also yank something out of its familiar context, forcing the viewer to regard it on its own merits, so that an entire salad is reduced to the sensual curvature of one section of a single vegetable.
Okay, so that’s what we know about abstraction. However, what we feel, even about just the word, can cow us into conformity. We fear being called “artsy”, avant-grade, pretentious. And we gradually adjust our images to reflect what others regard as “real”. It’s tough: learning to trust your own vision is the single hardest lesson in any art. But what’s the alternative? Cranking out the same systematic execution of a flower for the next forty years just to curry favor with the mob?
If you observe an orchid (like the one above), and see, not merely a flower, but a winged creature taking flight, why not take the extra step and reclaim the “realness” of that object for your own purpose? The camera is an interpretative tool, not a video recorder.
Anytime we are tempted to restrict our pictures to what the world at large regards as “real”, we should listen for abstraction’s quiet but persistent question. “Real” according to whom?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY, WHEN IT FLEXES TO ITS FULLEST LIMITS, should never be about merely accepting things at face value. The camera is a fairly reliable recording device, but simply using it to freeze time severely limits its narrative potential. Of course, on a purely personal level, that’s frequently just what we want: to stop the clock on the vanishing of tender times and loved ones: to preserve life.
However, I believe that the camera should also preserve death.
I’m not talking about doing a series of close-ups of Grandpa in the crypt. I’m mostly thinking biological subjects here. Living things are most typically photographed in the full bloom of health: the eye luxuriates over bright explosions of color, the hardy flesh of petals, the skyward reach of tender saplings. But if a photographic subject gains extra interpretive power as it’s removed from its standard context (nature in its regular settings), then a living thing achieves the ultimate visual re-contextualization as its life begins to ebb. Taking the familiar out of its comfort zone opens it up to alternate interpretations.
The rose seen above, taken with a Lensbaby Velvet 56 (a wonderful portrait lens which doubles as a decent macro), was days dead when I came upon it, and yet it presented textures more intriguing, colors deeper and richer than its fresher vase-mates. Is this ghoulish?
Depends. Decay is, after all, something we document with great enthusiasm as it applies to inanimate things like rusted cars, crumbling neighborhoods and abandoned infrastructures. How much more attention should be paid, then, to things that once mirrored our own fleeting arrangement with mortality, once throbbed with pulses as perishable as those bounding through our own veins.
SIGNS ARE PRIMARILY SOURCES OF INFORMATION AND IDENTIFICATION, a utilitarian way of learning who’s who and what’s where. In photography, their primary use can move beyond those roles to become commentary, context, atmosphere, even pure abstract subject matter. As shooters, we all use signs in ways that are not strictly literal but are 100% visual. They are powerful tools.
This is a circular way of saying that, in an image, a sign is never just a sign, but a way of indicating and qualifying place, time, mood. Be it a hand-scrawled “keep out” warning outside a busted farmhouse or a day-glo neon “open” greeting outside a pawn shop, a sign is valuable narrative shorthand. Of course, just like human storytellers, some signs are untrustworthy narrators, undermining what they seem to “say” with the things they imply within an image. Managing their messaging then becomes the responsibility of the photographer, who can use their content to reveal, conceal, or comment as needed.
The sign seen here, announcing the Museum Of The Moving Image in Astoria,Queens, has its letters mounted on a mirror-like surface, allowing the viewer to see evolving street life over his shoulder as he “reads” the characters. It’s both advertisement and illustration, a low-tech demo of the museum’s intent. Like all signs, it’s a prop, a piece of stage dressing, interpreted as narrowly or broadly as you need it to be.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PUTTERING SUFFERS A BAD REPUTATION, coming somewhere on the disreputability scale between “screwing around” and “just passing the time”, poking an insolent finger in the eye of the Puritan work ethic. The headmaster’s voice echoes from the land of Hard-Won Wisdom: Time is money. Make something of yourself. Whattaya gonna do, waste the entire day?
Yeah, replies the photographer within you. Thought I might….
Making a picture isn’t the same process as building a bridge. You don’t always end the project with the same aims as you began with. Like any other artistic enterprise, the answer might come in the journey, rather than the destination. And a photographer, caught in mid-creation and asked, “what you doing?” should be quite comfortable answering, “you know, I’m not really sure yet…”
The above image is a total exercise in “let’s see what happens if I do this“, and at no time in the making of it did I have a set plan or firm objective: I just did know when to stop, but everything else was negotiable in the moment. I wasn’t wasting time: I was investing it.
At first, I was trying to take a picture of my back yard, which over my shoulder, as it was reflected in the glass cabinet door in front of me. I was about to kill the power on the amplifier on a shelf behind the door when a test shot revealed something unusual. At my chosen aperture, the amp’s two red LEDs weren’t reading as sharp points of light, but as diffuse outer circles surrounding soft inner circles, almost like a pair of feral eyes. And at that point, the garden scene slowly started to take a back seat.
Shooting the glass door at a slight angle made my body register as a reflection, while shooting straight on turned me into a silhouette, which would become handy. Now that I was just a shape, I could be anything, so I positioned myself to where the dots indeed appeared to glowing, spooky eyes. Shooting with my right hand, my body details now masked by shadow, I crossed my left hand over beyond the right edge of my body, posing it to look as if I were stealing something, or perhaps twisting the dial on a combination safe. Having thus established the behavior for the character I was now creating, I grabbed my wife’s garden hat and threw a bed blanket around my shoulders for some sinister atmosphere. Click and done, with my newly imagined Phantom Blot plotting his way into the house. I didn’t know the whole story, but I knew when to stop playing. Total time investment: five big minutes.
You won’t always have an organized blueprint for a picture when you set about making one. Besides, if you confine yourself solely to the familiar when shooting, eventually all of your photos will start to resemble each other, and not in a good, “cohesive body of work” way.
Screw with the formula. Embrace the uncertain.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MEMORY ISN’T SHARPLY DEFINED OR TIDY, and so the act of conjuring remembrance in art is never as forensically factual as sliding open an autopsy drawer. The yester-thing that we treasure most dearly are the true opposite of clinical artifacts: they are, instead, bleary, distorted, indistinct, and mysterious. Small wonder that trying to fix memory on a camera sensor is like trying to pitchfork smoke.
Creating images in an attempt to capture the past is a huge part of photography, but it’s a no-man’s land without clear markings or signs. We begin our visual argument by asserting that our version of a memory is the official one… but official according to whom? Even people who have shared a specific event will offer different testimony of what it “really” was. And that very subjective uncertainty becomes one of photography’s greatest charms.
It only took a few years for early shooters to conclude that photographs need not be confined to merely measuring or documenting the world. Early on, they enlisted fancy and whimsy to the cause of depicting memory, just as painters did. And conversely, once there was a machine like the camera to perform the task of faithfully recording “reality”, painters began to abandon it for Impressionism and everything that followed after. Both arts began, like Alice, to regularly venture out on both sides of the looking glass.
A great part of photography’s allure is in discovering how little objective reality has to be in image involving memory, and what an adventure it is to escape the actual in the pursuit of the potential. The camera lets us tell lovely lies in pursuit of the truth.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE BEST PHOTOGRAPHS ARE NOT STAND-ALONE WORKS OF ART, BUT CONVERSATIONS BETWEEN ARTIST AND AUDIENCE. You don’t just stride up to that framed image on the wall and let its wonderfulness wash over you; you bring what you have been, over a lifetime, to it, comparing those two entities side by side, and even assigning your own truth to the photo, “deciding” what it means. The pictures don’t speak to you: you debate with each other.
Think about the images that, over a lifetime, have reached you in the deepest way. Did those photographs bring you something that you didn’t already have, or was it echoed, defined, re-purposed, based on who you’ve been thus far, or how you see? How else to explain why a picture moves one person to tears, while it leaves another completely nonplussed? Of course, some photographs almost accidentally produce a similar result to a wide variety of viewers, but there are far more of them where the messaging is muddled, imprecise.
And that’s a good thing.
I made the above image several days ago purely as an experiment, using an earlier one of my pictures as a prop within what’s obviously a staged shot. The completed “new” photograph was part of an assignment by an image sharing group I belong to, which laid down several elements that had to be in the final picture: a hand covered by something, that same hand touching something, and a de-saturated color palette. Beyond that, I had complete control of how those elements would be combined or interpreted.
The reason I began to play with some older pictures was chiefly to see if I could take a photo made with one specific mood in mind and re-purpose it within a new context, making the image elicit something completely different. So, without further background or explanation, the challenge to you: what does this particular image (which has an older image within it) convey to you, if anything? What is the dominant mood or the implied backstory? And even if what you’re seeing is not the same as what I set out to “say”, does the picture have any relevance for you personally? Does it have any narrative value, or is it merely an exercise in technique?
Context isn’t everything in a photograph, but neither is any image is absorbed in a vacuum. We color our approach to it in some way, becoming, in essence, its co-creator. You may not be in the frame, but you’re definitely in the picture.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
COMPOSITION IN PHOTOGRAPHY WOULD BE A SNAP (sorry) if the camera actually possessed not just an eye, but also a brain. But that’s where you come in.
When the human eye takes in a scene, the brain automatically ranks all the information within it, basically making a composition of priority. We “see” some things and “don’t see” others, based on how our grey matter ranks the importance of everything in our field of vision. A camera cannot make these fine decisions: it merely makes a light record of what it’s pointed at. That accounts for the fact that our “perfect” landscape, the one we ourselves recalled from the first day of vacation, comes back, in a mere photo, complete with electrical wires, distracting signs, junk near the beach, and any other number of things our brains filtered out of the original viewing experience.
Composition is thus a matter of our deliberately arranging things by priority, making an argument for our audience to Look Here First, Only Look Here, Give Greater Weight To This Over That, or any other messaging we desire. In sales terms, it’s what pitchmen call Asking For The Order. Simply, composing a photograph means setting the terms of engagement for the viewer’s eye.
With still-life photographs, the shooter has the greatest degree of control and responsibility. After all, our subject is stationary, easily moved and arranged to our whim. You pretty much are lord of your domain. That being said, it’s wise to use this luxury of time and control to envision as many ways as possible to convey your message. The image at the top of this page, for example, is crowded, but the nut shells and the unshelled nuts are a study in textural contrast. There’s lots of color and detail, with one side being somewhat blanched while the other is rough and complex. That’s one way of making the image.
For comparison, in the second frame, the terms of engagement are completely different. The pile of shells at left is more sharply contrasted with the single nut at right. The nut carries the only vivid color in the image; it’s an outlier, a misfit…maybe the last man/nut standing? The simplification of the composition lets it breathe a little, allowing the viewer to speculate, invent. Are the shells symbolic of a mound of nuts that have already been polished off in some grand snacking orgy? Why was one lone nut left to tell the tale? And so on.
Change the arrangement of subjects in a scene and you’ve changed the terms of narration, or even insisted that there is no narration, just patterns, light, or abstraction. Whichever path you choose, no composition comes to the camera “ready to eat”, as it were. You have to tell your camera’s mechanical eye what to see, and how to see it.
“I had this notion of what I called a democratic way of looking around, that nothing was more or less important. It quickly came to be that I grew interested in photographing whatever was there, wherever I happened to be. For any reason.” –William Eggleston
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MOST PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE NOT PRIME MOVERS, in that the majority of us don’t personally carve out the foundations of new truths, but rather build on the foundations laid by others. Art consists of both revolutionaries and disciples, and the latter group is always the larger. With that in mind, it’s more than enough for an individual shooter to establish a single beachhead that points the way for those who follow, and to be able to achieve two such breakthroughs is almost unheard of. Strangely, one of the photographers who did just that is, himself, also almost unheard of, at least outside of the intellectual elite.
William Eggleston (b. 1939) can correctly be credited as one of the major midwives of color photography at a time that it was still largely black and white’s unwanted stepchild. Great color work by others certainly preceded his own entry to the medium in 1965, but the limits of print technology, as well as a decidedly snobby bias toward monochrome by the world at large, slowed its adoption into artsy circle by decades. After modeling himself on the great b&w street shooters Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eggleston practically stumbled into color, getting many of his first prints processed at ordinary drugstores rather than in his own darkroom. His accidental discovery of the dye-transfer color process on a lab’s price list sparked his curiosity, and he soon crossed over into brilliantly saturated transparencies, images bursting with radiant hues that were still a rarity even in major publications. Eggleston’s work was, suddenly, all about color. That was Revolution One.
Revolution Two emerged when he stopped worrying about whether his pictures were “about” anything else. Eggleston began what he later termed his “war with the obvious”, eschewing the popular practice of using photographs to document or comment. His portfolios began to center on mundane subjects or street situations which fell beneath the notice of most other shooters. The fact that something was in the world was, for Eggleston, enough to warrant having a picture made of it. A street sign, an abandoned tricycle, a blood-red enameled ceiling..anything and everything was suddenly worth his attention.
Reaction in the photographic world was decidedly mixed. While John Szarkowski, the adventurous director of photography at the New York Museum Of Modern Art, marveled at a talent he saw as “coming out of the blue”, making Eggleston only the second major color photographer to exhibit at MOMA, others called the work ugly, banal, meaningless. Even today, Eggleston’s subjects elicit reactions of “…so what??” from many viewers, as if someone told them the front end of a joke but omitted the punch line. “People always want to know when something was taken, where it was taken, and, God knows, why it was taken”, Eggleston remarked in one interview. “It gets really ridiculous. I mean, they’re right there, whatever they are.”
However, as can frequently happen in the long arc of photographic history, Eggleston’s work reverberates today in the images created by the Instantaneous Generation, the shoot-from-the-hip, instinctive shooters of the iPhone era who celebrate randomness and a certain hip detachment in their view of the world. As a consequence of Eggleston’s work, images have long since been freed of the prison of “relevance”, as people rightfully ask who is qualified to say what a picture is, or if there is any standard for photography at all. Thus does the obvious become a casualty of war.