By MICHAEL PERKINS
STREET PHOTOGRAPHY IS A UNIQUE MARRIAGE OF SETTING AND SUBJECTS, that delicate balance of locations and denizens that make streets into neighborhoods. The drama created in such studies is always a thrilling, moment-to-moment improvisation in which small things generate big effects. Incremental changes in the scenario, like waiting for the old man with the dog to walk directly under the deli sign, or framing the sullen teen right next to a reflective window, can be the difference between something that’s merely quaint and something that’s universal. And the more crowded with subjects the frame is in a street shot, the more options there are to weigh. Doing choreography for a lone dancer is not the same thing as blocking out space an entire troupe.
Streets shots are about weighing the importance of several things at once, in opposition to each other rather than as isolated elements. Tensions are set, tightened and released; motives are explored and exploited. In 2021’s cautious re-emergence from our respective quarantine caves, we are not only re-learning the flexing of our own muscles; we are also watching the equivalent adjustment in others. With or without a camera in hand, we are all more deliberate people watchers in this nervous re-entry phase. People are not, at least for right now, mere wallpaper, but active orbiting bodies in little constellations. We are a little more keenly aware, as we venture out, what their personal Great To Be Back moments are. Perhaps, in time, we will go back to our old habit of generally walking past each other, but now, in this careful new world, we are paying a little more attention. And those of us who, through photography, are in the habit of seeing with a little extra intensity will be in for a feast.
As stated before, the more people you decide to include in a street shot, the more choreography there is to fuss over. In the “day-out-with-dad” scenario shown here, I had several stories that all wanted telling at the same time. In some frames shot over the space of a minute (about eight), various players were all contending for star status. In some shots, the father seemed to be guiding the kids and the dog. In a few, the dog’s personality as explorer-at-large seemed to place his energy in charge. In yet more, the young girl seemed to be trying to run things by standing atop the rock on which, in the selected frame, she’s seen leaning. Thus, in the final version, she’s a little more passive, Dad is trying to keep things in balance, and the dog is definitely on point as the overall leader of the expedition.
All versions of this scene had their elements of tension, warmth and humor, and so in choosing a single final rendition, I was neither right or wrong. The joy of the enterprise was in the element of spontaneous creation offered by what was happening upon the stage and amongst the players. I could write the ending so the guy gets the girl or where the cowboy just rides into the sunset, but that part is really unimportant. In street photography, the potential is the attraction. We are only able to extract a single instant to suggest a whole reality, and both the thrill and the terror of that choice, while it’s no walk in the park, is, for some, simply irresistible.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
BEYOND THE RAW TRAGEDY of this year’s Great Hibernation, our forced stay-cation away from each other, the biggest loss for artists is the loss of faces. Photography engages the purposes and layers of human features, and draws its energy and appeal from the interpretation of those elements. When the people, through death or isolation, go away in great numbers, the faces that fuel our art go away as well. For those who create images, it’s like losing half the colors in the Crayola box.
That hunger for faces isn’t even fully satisfied after we have begun to cautiously crawl out of our respective caves, either, because the faces that we do see are partially concealed. We see eyes where once we saw both eyes and smiles. We try to intuit from memory what kind of expression lies behind the cloth of containment. Maybe that’s why, at least for this photographer, I’ve turned to a source I only selectively visit during normal times….the faces of animals.
It makes a kind of baseline sense. One of the only public places I go, while all this horror is sorted, is the local zoo. And here’s where the purists amongst us will moan that such places are the worst way to discover animals for purposes of photography. Snotty image contests have even gone so far as to routinely exclude such images from competition over the years, keening about how “dishonest” it is to capture an animal’s image in captivity, blah, blah, blah. That view is, of course, idiotic. The photographer alone determines whether an animal shot in the wild or in an enclosure registers with viewers as “real”. Better to shoot a stunning picture through bars than to let it go unmade.
And so, absent the human faces that typically populate our photography, we go in search of emotion and feeling in the faces of cats, apes, birds, and why not? If our own features are supposed to be a visual seismograph of our inner struggles, how does that happen any less with an animal? We’re already accustomed to labeling the reactions of the animals closest to us as those of a “happy” dog or a “lonely” cat, so the idea that animal faces register emotions is far from alien to us. I can’t speak for anyone else, but, as I await the full return of human faces in all their mystery and madness, I will practice portraiture of another kind with friends of a different stripe. We love to flatter ourselves that our struggles, our triumphs are the only ones worthy of mention in the world. It’s time to realize what a stupidly limited concept that has always been.
(FIAT LUX, Michael Perkins’ newest collection of images, is available from NormalEye Books.)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF YOU WANT TO HEAR THE UNIVERSE LAUGH, goes the adage, make a plan. Or, in my specific case, if you want to ensure that pigeons hang around your house forever, make a plan to keep pigeons off the premises.
Start by installing tiny metal spikes in the cross beams right over the entrance to your front door. You’ve seen them, those steely porcupine quills designed to bar entry to all the nooks and crannies where birds love to assemble to conduct aerial assault on your sidewalks. Spikes go up, birds get packing, no cruelty, no pavement poo, everyone’s a winner, right?
And if you buy that story, I have bridge I want to sell you..
But, hey, I’m a humane slob, so I write the check, go for the whole spiny effect atop the house, and look forward to a lifetime of carefree maintenance and lordly leisure. Only someone forgot to send the spike company’s brochure to the curve-billed thrasher who decided to weave twigs between the spikes, further reinforcing his domicile against the elements. And wasn’t it nice of us to build the first phase of his nest for him? Sure, we’re swell that way.
So no pigeons living above the entrance, but still birds. Small hitch in the plan, however: Mama Thrasher isn’t a hit with the Neighborhood Watch Association (Avian Division) and leaves town. And here we see the fates in all their sadistic genius: a mother pigeon moves into my “pigeon-free” zone like a hobo in a rail car and proceeds to lay her own eggs. The circle of life is now complete!
So, as anyone wise enough to realize when he’s licked, I resolve to at least photograph this grand cosmic joke. Only the act of my going in and out of my front door each day spooks Mrs. Pudge to flight, and so it takes nearly a week to sneak a shot of her in residence……an ordinary, unchallenging, Photo 101 shot that a toddler could make, if only Nature can stop laughing at me long enough to say cheese.
Obviously, with this kind of outcome, I will not be rushing to bear-proof the back yard. Now if you’ll excuse me, the flowers could us a soaking rain, so I’m off to get my car washed.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS PROBABLY HAVE TO HAVE AT LEAST SOME IDEA OF WHERE THEY’RE HEADED in pursuit of an image, or else basic issues like, Where To Point The Car or Which Path To Take can’t be settled. And there is, even for the instinctual process of creation, something to be said for a basic plan. However, every photographer has experienced the wonder of finding oneself arrived at a great picture-making opportunity when, in fact, you were headed someplace completely different. It’s in such moments, places where Plan A becomes Plan B, C, or D, that the excitement happens.
After you capture an image that essentially works, your mind naturally comes to take ownership of it, just as if that picture were your original intention. But this seldom occurs. Pictures aren’t like Grab-And-Go sandwiches, and very few are just waiting there, fully formed, until you wander by and imprison them in your box. Our final choices for photographs are often the destination in a ride with many stops along the way. We might have come to do this, but we wound up modifying, even abandoning our first instinct to get this instead.
The above image is a textbook example of this process. The gorgeous sunset clouds seen here were originally to be the entire composition. The general rule is that skies, by themselves, are usually not sufficiently interesting to be the solo star in a photo, but the light and texture of this particular dusk had convinced me that a minimalist shot might just be possible. However, one of my first framings caught an octotillo shrub in its lower right corner, and that new information sent the picture off in a different direction.
Re-framing to bring the shrub into the entire lower half of the shot and silhouetting it against the sky gave the framing both a sense of scale and depth, and I began to convince myself (moving on to Plan B) that this now two-element picture would be The One. Then a single starling made a landing at the upper right corner of the ocotillo, creating a more obvious initial point of contact for the eye. The viewer would engage the most familiar part of the picture, the bird’s body, then travel leftward to the ocotillo’s jagged tangles, and backwards to the textured sky. Final Plan: C….a three-element image in which the individual parts seemed, at least, to talking with one another.
In the pages of The Normal Eye I keep coming back to this idea of “planned accidents”, or shots that start in one direction and end in another, because the process, once you allow yourself to go with it, can lead to images which, eventually, seem inevitable, as if they never could have been any other way. And those are the ones you keep.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CHILDREN AND ANIMALS OPERATE IN WORLDS DIFFERENT ENOUGH FROM OUR OWN that they merit a special viewpoint when being photographed. Composing an image designed to enter into their special realities should facilitate that process, giving the viewer the idea that he has gained entry to their realms. The camera’s eye needs to seem to inhabit their actual living space.
I’ve felt for a long time that the formal K-Mart studio method of making a child’s portrait is stiflingly inadequate for plumbing that young person’s real animating spirit. And as for pets, the sheer daily deluge of animal snaps posted globally are served just as badly from over-formalizing or staging. Intimate insight into the self can’t be achieved by generic backdrops, tired props or balanced flash alone. If anything, such systems push the real child further away from view, leaving only a neutral facade in place of the true human. Personality locks eyes with the lens in unguarded, not choreographed, moments.
I’m not saying that no preparation should go into animal or child pictures. I am suggesting that a “snapshot mentality”, backed by lots of shooting experience, can yield results that are more organic, natural and spontaneous. Shoot in a moment but apply what you have learned over a lifetime.
Even the simple practice of shooting on your subject’s level, rather than shooting like a grownup, i.e., downhill toward your subject, can create a connection between your line of sight and theirs. If your kids and kitties are on the floor, go there. Another simple way to create an intimate feel is to have the child or pet dominate the frame. If there is some other feature of the room, from furniture to other people, that does not rivet your audience’s attention to the main subject, cut it out. Many, many portraits fail by simply being too busy.
And, finally, catch your dog, cat, boy or girl doing something he’s chosen to do. Don’t assign him to play with a toy, or ask him to stand here, here, or here. Wait like a professional, then shoot fast like a snapshotter. The more invisible you become, the less distraction you provide. Looking at a child or pet enthralled by something is a lot more interesting than watching him watch you. If you do happen to lock eyes during the process, as in the case of the rather suspicious house cat seen above, steal that moment gladly, but don’t try to direct it.
Don’t draw your portrait subjects into your energy. Eavesdrop on theirs. The pictures will flow a lot more naturally, and you won’t have to work half as hard.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SEPARATING ONE’S IMAGES INTO “HIT” AND “MISS” PILES is always painful, since it’s kind of like telling some of your kids that they will be power hitters in Little League while their siblings should take up…well, macrame. But self-editing, over time, is nearly as important as shooting, and the mindfulness of asking “what was I thinking” is the useful corollary to “what do I want to do next?” That don’t make it smart any less, but at least you understand the pain.
Usually I hurl photos into the “miss” box for purely technical reasons, which means that I should have known what to do and just blew it upon execution. I’m more exacting nowadays, because present-era camera make it tougher to absolutely boot a shot, although I have striven to stay ahead of the curve and make lousy pictures even in the face of rapidly advancing technology. People who think they’ve idiot-proofed their gear have never met this idiot, I boast. It’s a point of pride.
Occasionally, though, you review a shot that was okay exposure-wise, but completely got the narrative wrong. Sometimes you can recompose the shot and redress this problem, and sometimes you’re just sealed out of the airlock with no oxygen. That’s the breaks. In the original image at the top of this page is a candid of a little girl next to a horse that I thought would be charming. Cute kid, nice horsie, you get the picture. Problem is, I never really captured her essence in any of the photos I shot (trust me) and I framed so tight that I was only showing the horse’s body. First verdict on this one: thanks for playing our game, sorry to see you go, here are some lovely parting gifts.
However, as a rainy day project, the photo suddenly presented a different way for me to go. It wasn’t that I had shown too little of the horse; it was that I had shown too much of both the horse and the child. The central part of the image, taken by itself, had a narrative power that the larger frame lacked. To crop so that just a part of the girl’s small arm connected with the strong, muscular torso of the horse magnified his power by contrasting it with her fragility. I wasn’t losing the horse’s face, since it hadn’t been in the original, and losing the girl’s face actually improved the impact of the image by reducing her to an abstraction, to a symbol of innocence, gentleness, but above all, contact. We could deduce that the horse and the girl were friends. We didn’t need to see it reflected in their features.
Sometimes an image we are ready to reject is hiding a more concentrated fragment that saves the entire thing, if we are unafraid to pare away what we once saw as “essential”. It’s the go-out-and-come-back-in-again school of thought. It’s at least a seeing exercise, and you gotta flex them eye and brain muscles at every opportunity.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE EARLY YEARNING OF PHOTOGRAPHERS TO MASTER OR EXCEED THE TECHNICAL LIMITS OF THEIR MEDIUM led, in the 1800’s, to a search for visual “perfection”. For rendering tones accurately. For capturing details faithfully. And, above all, for tight, sharp focus. This all made perfect sense in an era when films were so slow that people sitting for portraits had to have steel rods running up the backs of their necks to help them endure three-minute exposures. Now, mere mechanical perfection long since having become possible in photography, it’s time to think of what works in a picture first, and what grade we get on our technical “report card” second.
This means that we need no longer reject a shot on technical grounds alone, so long as it succeeds on some other platform, especially an emotional one. Further, we have to review and even re-review images, by ourselves as well as others, that we think “failed” in one way or another, and ask ourself for a new definition of what “failure” means. Did the less-than-tack-sharp focus interfere with the overall story? Did the underexposed sections of the frame detract from the messaging of what was more conventionally lit? Look to the left. at Robert Capa’s iconic image of the D-Day invasion at Normandy. He was just a little busy dodging German snipers to fuss with pinpoint focusing, but I believe that the world jury has pretty much ruled on the value of this “failed” photo. So look inward at the process you use to evaluate your own work. Give it your worst shot, if you will, and see what you think now, today.
The above image came from a largely frustrating day a few years back at a horse show in which I spent all my effort trying to freeze the action of the riders, assuming that doing so would deliver some kind of kinetic drama. I may have been right to think along these lines, but doing so made me automatically reject a few shots that, in retrospect, I no longer think of as total failures. The equestrienne in this frame looks as eager, even as exhausted as her mount, and the slight blur in both of them that I originally rejected now seems to work for me. There is a greater blur of the surrounding arena, which is fine, since it’s merely a contextual setting for the foreground figures, but I now have to wonder if I would like the picture better (given that it’s supposed to be suggestive of speed) if the foreground were completely sharp. I’m no longer so sure.
I think that all images have to stand or fall on what they accomplish, regardless of discipline or intention.We only kid ourselves into equating technical perfection with aesthetic success. Sometimes they walk into the room hand in hand. Other times they arrive in separate cars.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS ONLY ONE KIND OF PICTURE YOU WILL EVER TAKE OF A CAT, and that is the one she allows you to take. Try stealing an image from these spiritual creatures against their will, and you will reign over a bitter kingdom of blur, smear, and near misses.
It’s trickier to take photos of the ectoplasmic projections of departed relatives. But not by much.
I recently encountered this particular lady in a Brooklyn brownstone, a gorgeous building, but not one that is exactly flooded with light, even on a bright day. There are a million romantically wonderful places for darkness to hide inside such wonderful old residences, and any self-respecting feline will know how to take the concept of “stealth” down a whole other road. The cat in the above photo is, believe me, better at instant vaporization and re-manifestation than Batman at midnight in Gotham. She also has been the proud unofficial patrol animal for the place since Gawd knows when, so you can’t pull any cute little “chase-the-yarn-get-your-head-stuck-in-a-blanket” twaddle that litters far too much of YouTube.
You’re dealing with a pro here.
Her, not me.
Plus she’s from Brooklyn, so you should factor some extra ‘tude into the equation.
The only lens that gives me any luck inside this house is a f/1.8 35mm prime, since it’s ridiculously thirsty for light when wide open and lets you avoid the noticeable pixel noise that you’d get jacking up the ISO in a dark space. Thing is, at that aperture, the prime also has a razor-thin depth of field, so, as you follow the cat, you have to do a lot of trial framings of the autofocus on her face, since getting sharp detail on her entire body will be tricky to the point of nutso. And of course, if you move too far into shadow, the autofocus may not take a reading at all, and then there’s another separate complication to deal with.
The best (spelled “o-n-l-y”) solution on this particular day was to squat just inside the front foyer of the house, which receives more ambient light than any other single place in the house. For a second, I thought that her curiosity as to what I was doing would bring her into range and I could get what I needed. Yeah, well guess again. She did, in fact, approach, but got quickly bored with my activity and turned to walk away. It was only a desperate cluck of my tongue that tricked her into turning her head back around as she prepared to split. Take your stupid picture, she seemed to say, and then stop bothering me.
Hey, I ain’t proud.
My brief audience with the queen had been concluded.
I’ll just show myself out……
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN THE SPRING, JUST OUTSIDE OUR FRONT DOOR, THE MOST POIGNANT METAPHOR FOR MOTHERLY LOVE PLAYS OUT in the arms of our immense saguaro cactus. The trunk of this desert giant is regularly pockmarked by the peckings of improvised dwellings, which are temporary apartments for woodpeckers, thrashers and other breeds, and crude nests are typically crammed into the crevices between trunk and arm, so, whatever the season, we are well used to birdsong as the first sound of the morning.
But during late April and early May, an extra dimension of magic occurs when the typically blunt arms sprout hundreds of buds, and, in turn, bundles of gorgeous white cactus flowers. The blossoms are short-lived, opening and folding up dead within the space of a single day, but, for the earliest hours of their brief existence, they are life itself, not only to the regular bird crowd but also the seasonal surplus that flies in for breakfast. Between the blooms and the bugs which orbit them (also in search of nectar), it’s a smorgasbord.
That’s when I think of the sacrifice of mothers.
Birds, like most mothers you know, also spend every waking hour of their days foraging, building, sheltering, feeding, and fretting over the fates of their young. They tremble as their youngsters fledge; they learn to deal with the separation that must occur when their babies become adults in their own right; they deal with the sorrow over those who are destined never to fly. And they go on.
There is a kind of happy terror involved in being a mother, be you bird or biped, and the triumph of Mothers’ Day is that, somehow, that terror is faced, even embraced…..because the gold at the end of that particular rainbow is beyond price.
Hug a mother today, even if she’s not your own.
Especially if she’s not your own.
Connect, and say thank you.
After all, they taught us how to fly.
follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye
- Happy Mother’s Day!! (dannapycher.wordpress.com)