SMUDGES OF MEMORY
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS A METHOD OF INFORMATION STORAGE, the human mind leaves a lot to be desired. We take comfort in the belief that our inner vaults contain flawless, “official” versions of our accumulated experiences, but, in time, we realize that our memories are, at best, unreliable narrators, and, at worst, bald-faced liars. Our master files, our records of “what really happened” are as riddled with drop-outs, jump cuts, and gravy stains as any other account that has been told and retold over time. Small wonder that the devices we use to aid our recollections, such as photographs, can, themselves either reveal or conceal varying editions of “the truth”.
When you pair imperfect beings with even more imperfect machines tasked with documenting the big deals in their lives, you get inaccuracy piled on inaccuracy. When we are feeling generous, we label the inaccuracies “interpretations”. When we more clinical, we call them “flawed”. Thing is, there are many parts of our lives that no longer exist in the physical universe, or are at least placed beyond our reach. Many of these parts have left no trace in the world except the images made of them. Our actual vacations, long gone, are supplanted in memory by our pictures of those vacations, eventually becoming that experience in a much more real sense than whatever fragmented mental archives exist of the true event. The pictures remain static, and thus seem permanent, fixed, but over time they will be judged against the changing context of our faulty inner files.
In the present era, when many of the things that we have captured in cameras are, for the moment, physically unavailable to us, the symbolic power of pictures of events past is amplified greatly. The image seen here, deliberately shot to be a bit dreamy, is open to multiple interpretations beyond the restricted scope of the original location. I know, mentally, that it was taken inside a Broadway theatre, but I can no longer swear to the name of the actual venue or what I saw there. In the absence of the fullness of my own memory, this picture has now become all theatres, in all cities, at all points in time. And while it looks like that’s what I was going for at the time, the point is that even the events that I believe I clearly remember are victims of my own brain decay over time, with the pictures I made of them expanded in their value, since they are now open to wider and wider impact as symbols. The pictures are less about what happened and more about the magic of what I prefer to have happened. The hard, clean line of reality is supplanted by the smudge of memory.
That is the amazing elasticity of a photograph. It is both truth and lie, symbol and substance. Photography is an art because it is so magically malleable, because an image can bear the personal stamp of its creator, no less than a statue or a painting. Designed to immortalize parts of our world, they do precisely that, often having a life of their own beyond the physical limits of the things they were used to depict. If that’s not art, what is?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
“I DON’T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT ART”, goes the old joke about a lowbrow walking through a gallery, “but I know what I like.” Turns out that, in terms of how a photographer can remain true to his or her own heart, that’s a pretty wise statement. The message: don’t carry around loaded words that no one can define. Stick with your instincts, since they are beyond labels. Labels like “art”.
We place little verbal baggage tags on lots of things, mostly as convenient mental shortcuts, and so, in discussions about picture-making, the word art gets dropped more than an MC’s mic. And while it’s only mildly annoying that people bandy around a word that none of us even know the meaning of, it’s usually used to talk about something we aspire to do, i.e., “make art”. In today’s marketing environment, however, the whole thing has moved from silly to sinister, as the word art is now attached to certain kinds of equipment, so-called “art lenses” (as they are often called in advertisements), meaning, I guess, that you can buy the ability to make art. Just send for our free booklet…
The idea that art can be achieved with the purchase of a particular piece of gear is like saying that if you buy a really expensive hammer, you’re an architect. Or, let’s come at it from the reverse angle. Are we saying that, since I don’t own a certain kind of camera, I can’t make art? A quick Google of the phrase “what is an art lens” will actually dredge up three or more solid pages of links to a single lens manufacturer (whose products are on the high end of the precision scale) who cleverly put the word art in the actual name of an entire line of their optics. On the other end of the spectrum, in the land of instinctual, hipster-bound low-fidelity photography, a second manufacturer also refers to its product as creating “art” effects. Okay, so let’s parse this thinking out a little.
What can an “art lens” actually do? Is it specialized glass (think fisheyes, macros, selective focus) that performs one effect well? Does that confer “art” on your work? Is it anything that radically improves sharpness, or, vice versa, radically diminishes it in a desirable fashion? Is it a particular focal length, resolution rate, distortion spec? Does it cook your lunch and get your dog’s teeth 30% cleaner in ten days? Is the image seen up top “artistic?” And does my choice of equipment have any role in that? Was I doing something with an expensive optic to get this look, or was I shooting with something so basic that it always produces this result? And who is to say?
Art is hard enough to identify without slapping the word “art” on a particular hunk of gear. Art is nearly impossible to define, but, like the guy in the gallery, you know what you like. And the completely individual definition of that sensation is what makes for art…not a purchase, not a baggage tag, not an advertising claim. Equipment is less of a determinant in excellence than any other factor in photography. And those who quack the loudest about what “art” is may be, in the final analysis, as clueless to name it as the rest of us.
ECHOES OF HOPE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHEN DARKNESS LOOMS IN THE HEART OF MAN, THE SIZE OF ANY LIGHT IN THE ROOM IS LARGELY IRRELEVANT. What matters is that someone, anyone, struck a match. The light puts physical limits on the dark. The light points toward escape. The light is the promise of continuation, of survival.
During the present forced hibernation among nations, it’s easy to compare today’s responses to The Latest Troubles with the responses seen in other crises. Everyone is free to make those comparisons, to crowd the air with arguments about who did what, and, once all the discussion abates, having a record of what we’ve tried and learned over the years is the work of art. Art records the dimension of our dislocations, measures the distance between Old and New Normals. Memorials, built by survivors, exist to delineate what happened to us, and, more importantly, what happened next.
There are four open-air “rooms” in the FDR Memorial in Washington, D.C., each designed to symbolize one of the separate presidential terms of Franklin Roosevelt, along with references to the specific challenges of those four eras-within-an-era. One such room houses sculptural reminders of how the average person interacted with the White House as it faced the singular challenges of the Great Depression. The figures, by George Segal (1924-2000), are spare, gaunt, haunting. One tableau shows an emaciated farming couple standing with grim determination amidst reminders of the Dust Bowl. Another shows a string of ragged men waiting in line for bread. My favorite figure shows a seated man leaning forward on his knees, his eyes fixed on the small “cathedral” radio set located just inches away. The sculpture is more than a mere tribute to Roosevelt’s encouraging series of “fireside chat” broadcasts, which acted to bolster the frightened nation as banks failed and privation swept across America like a plague of locusts. It is a snapshot of the relationship between leaders and the led. A bond. A lifeline of trust.
For Segal, who himself spent some of his college years scratching out a living on a chicken farm, and whose personal loss was measured in the Holocaust-related deaths of much of his family, the figures were emotional measures of the space taken up by mere mortals in alternating renderings of both pain and potential, expressed in a bold blend of materials. Covering models’ bodies completely in orthopedic bandages, he removed the hardened shells of plaster and gauze from their human “bearers” to create life-sized hollow spaces in three dimensions, leaving the details of the bandages in full view. In addition to his impactful pieces at the FDR Memorial, his surviving work in this format includes memorials to the gay liberation movement and the victims of Kent State.
Where do we regular shooters come into it? Making photographs of other people’s art from other types of media can range from mere snapshots to a kind of re-interpretation. The eye of the beholder shapes the eye of the camera. In Segal’s work for the FDR, a time so far removed from our own is transported back to anguished relevance. Generations later, we are all still seeking that bond, that link between leader and led. If we achieve it, the souvenirs of earlier days are merely quaint. If we can’t find that connection, however, these Echoes Of Hopes Past become more harrowing in their haunting power.
Because we need to walk toward the light.
Anyone have a match?
THE TEMPORARY COLLECTION
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS, MUSEUMS SHOULD NEVER BE A ONE–WAY STREET. The popular conception of the role of our various Hallowed Halls of Important Stuff is that the artifacts do all the sensory sending and we, the visiting public, do all the receiving. The idea prevails that paintings and sculptures and installations impart their wisdom and we passively soak it up, like ambulatory blotters. Thus, this logic must follow, a photographic record of the museum experience should only pointed in one direction.
But of course this is nonsense.
Anywhere you have hundreds of humans assembling in a common area, you have created an active anthropological laboratory, and thus a rich harvesting ground for the camera. A myriad of motives and paths, from “something to do” to a personal thirst for experience to a place to duck in out of the rain, converge as a “temporary collection” mixing with the museum’s’ more permanent ones. All these arrivals, each with their own energy, curiosity, hostility, apathy, fatigue, and joy to deal with, create a kaleidoscopic pattern of intrapersonal intersections and collisions. The eager attendee and the unwilling hostage exist side by side. That creates the unpredictable, and that unpredictability, for the photographer, creates opportunity.
In the image shown here, the “official” delights of the museum in question have failed to amaze, at least for the group occupying the bench. As for the woman peering out the window, she has simply found something with bigger “wow” value than anything hanging on the walls. The sheer dimensions of the space threaten to dwarf the group, to make it seem small or insignificant, and yet their faces and bodies contain a strange mix between tension and ennui that is so wonderfully human that it invites the investigative eye of the shooter.
This shot came to me virtually ready-made, although a later conversion to monochrome eliminated the minor color distractions of various articles of clothing. When a picture is this simple, everything that tends to complicate it becomes expendable. The phrase keep it simple, stupid, may not have originated with photographers, but we ought really to have it tattooed on our foreheads.
I spent nearly two hours in the museum in question (name withheld) and, I assure you, this was one of the most interesting tableaux I observed in the entire joint. It’s not that I find no interest in the arts: quite the opposite. It’s just that, visually, people reacting to the world is more vital to me than just pictures of the world alone. The whole gig is a museum, really, and frequently, the permanent collection of life is thus upstaged by the temporary one. Go figure.
BECAUSE WEIRD ISN’T FOREVER
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHAT DO YOU DO when you’re a quirky bit of modern art and the museum that hosts you has been shuttered for missing the rent? Futher, let’s assume your creator’s homeland regards your “art” as political blasphemy and let’s also stipulate that you are, say, a fifteen-foot-high chromed head of Vladimir Lenin with a tiny baby balanced on its top.
In the words of Randy Newman, “I Love L.A.”
Beginning in 2011, expatriot Chinese artist brothers Gao Zhen and Gao Qiang found a home for their satirical sculpture, Miss Mao Trying To Poise Herself At The Top Of Lenin’s Head, in front of Los Angeles’ ACE Museum at 4th Street and La Brea Avenue. Locals and tourists alike soon embraced the weird, much as motorists might grow fond of sites like The Giant Ball Of String or The World’s Crookedest House, worshiping the sheer asinine novelty of the thing over any aesthetic merit. The result? Art meant as provocation landed, instead, with the soft cushiony comfort of fun, an ironic landmark, as in, “to get to my house, take the first left after the Lenin head..”
But here’s the take-away for photographers. Part of our job is to freeze the human drama as it shifts and morphs. That means being particularly sensitive to the things in society that change the quickest, including the fashion waves of the art world. And if serious art falls out of favor quickly, art that is loaded with satire or irony really races to the front of the obsolescence checkout. Weird ain’t forever.
Lenin and Miss Mao found by 2017 that it’s hard to stay a head (sorry) when the ACE Museum was evicted, leaving the work essentially homeless. Zhen and Qiang tried in vain to land the Commie Chromedome a new roost in China, but the Big Red One basically told them to pound sushi (humorless bunch, those socialists). What’s a murderous goateed revolutionary to do?
At this writing (June 2018), the most recent citing of Vlad’s Big Head was at the site of a trucking company near Newberry Springs, California, in the Mojave Desert, property owned by artist Weiming Chen, a friend of the Gao brothers who operates the area as a kind of statuary boneyard for his own works and those of others. A snapshot taken of the head showed Lenin looking characteristically defiant, although absent the lovely Miss Mao. I like to think she’s found peace as the hood ornament for a 1966 Diamond Reo rig highballing down CA-10. Hey, I can dream.
So, I treasure my 2014 snap of the head in situ in L.A. (seen above), back when life was good and fate was kind. Photography is commentary, but often, the top comment that comes to mind is something like “okaaaaay, so that happened..” No matter: it’s always worth a grin, and usually worth a picture.
As with Miss Mao, it’s a balancing act.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ALTHOUGH MUSEUMS ARE DESIGNED as repositories of history’s greatest stories, I often find that the most compelling narratives within those elegant walls, for the photographer in me, are provided by the visitors rather than the exhibits.
We’ve seen this effect at zoos: sometimes the guy outside the ape house bears a closer resemblance to a gorilla then the occupant within. With the museum experience, making controlled, serene exposures of the artifacts is never as interesting as turning your reporter’s eye on the folks who came in the door. The juxtaposition of all the museum’s starched, arbitrary order with humanity’s marvelously random energy creates a beautifully strange staging site for social interaction….great hunting for street shooters.
The sculpture gallery shown here, one of the most beautiful rooms in Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, is certainly “picturesque”enough all by itself. However when the room is used to frame the chessboard-like weaving of live humans into the pattern of sculpted figures, it can create its own unique visual choreography, including the mother who would love to bottle-bribe her baby long enough to finish just one more chapter.
Anyone who’s visited The Normal Eye over the years recognizes this museum-as-social-laboratory angle is a consistent theme for me. I just love to mash-up big art boxes with the people who visit them. Sometimes all you get is statues. Other times, one kind of “exhibit” feeds off the other, and magic happens.
(VERY) STILL LIFE
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.
A SMALLER PIECE OF CAKE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN A HOUSE CRAMMED WITH LUXURIANT COFFEE TABLE BOOKS ON PHOTOGRAPHY, my most lovingly thumbed volumes seem to center on studies of Art Deco architecture, a subject which provides me with endless enjoyment. Some books touch on overall moderne design, but most are specific reference works on the zigzags, chevrons, whorls and curves of buildings, clad in this seductive, streamlined celebration of style. Similarly, my travel plans over the years involve sticking pins in the globe to indicate the fattest troves of these buildings, mapping my strategies for someday capturing them inside a box. It’s a bucket list, if buckets had been designed by Walter Dorwin Teague or Norman bel Geddes.
Shooting Deco buildings can humble one, since the sheer volume of decorative accents in a single skyscraper could consume a coffee table book all its own. Deco may use fewer details or lines to suggest an idea compared to earlier eras, but it is still undeniably busy. Some truly extreme edifices, such as Los Angeles’ Pantages Theatre, can nearly give you claustrophobia. These places were certainly meant to be looked at, but, to our contemporary eye, trying to take them “all in” is a little like sending your eye on a three-day bender. This also means that, for photographers, trying to tell a complete story in a single image is pert nigh impossible.
To that thought, I have spent several years going over shoots of Deco buildings that originally involved, say, thirty to forty images, only to find that, even when I was trying to break these giant birthday cakes into smaller slices, there was still enough going on, even in the edited shots, to warrant a second, third, or even fourth “sub-cropping”. One such place, also in L.A., is the giant faux-jade tower known as the Wiltern Theatre, so named because it occupies a corner at the intersection of WILshire Boulevard and WesTERN Avenue. The place was originally the Hollywood capstone of the Warner Brothers theatre chain, and survives today as a live performance space (think alt-rock meets emo). Point a camera anywhere, and you’ll harvest a click-ton of exuberant, exploding ornamentation.
The large shot seen at the top of the page is but one section of the glorious molded plaster overhang beneath the Wiltern’s marquee. The inset image at left is the larger master shot, in which I originally thought I was keeping it simple by limiting the frame to the lower part of the front right corner of the building. Turns out that even this “tighter” composition was too busy, hence the more radical crop to a smaller part of the pattern. On the way to the final edit, I also flipped the design upside down to make it splay out more dramatically and converted the dull gun-metal green to blue for a little extra romance.
All of which seems to be yet another re-hash of the old “less is more” argument. Simplify, simplify, grab the stone from my hand, grasshopper, etc., etc. Art Deco is a style in which the devil (the delight?) is most definitely in the details. Some are so incredible that it seems a sin to have them vanish into large, comprehensive uber-shots of big buildings, rather than being given the loving attention they deserve. And certainly, for photographers, there are other such visual birthday cakes that are more appetizing if you simply cut yourself a smaller slice.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
NO SELF-RESPECTING TOURIST SPOT IS COMPLETE WITHOUT A STROLL THROUGH the local craft shops, those kitschy little warrens of handmade goods from pottery to stone trinkets. Whether they are called “studios”, “boutiques” or “trading posts” these collections of gypsy creativity are on the main and minor drags of every destination town, and they are occasionally real feasts for the eye…and, in turn, the camera.
The stuff on the tables and counters is usually a riot of color and texture, and thus somewhat low-hanging fruit for photogs. But you can miss out if you limit your framings merely to the finished product, especially if the backstage or work areas, where the magic truly happens, are open or, even better, an active part of the customer experience. Lots of small craft factories, art sites, galleries and festivals incorporate the actual making of their goods into the overall tourist trip, and I often find these staging areas far more interesting than what eventually makes it to the sales floor.
Everyone recalls the corner pizzerias that oriented their kitchens so that the guy flipping the dough was in a display window near the street. It was great passive show biz and the same “backstage” allure still works for handmade jewelry and other crafts. And, while witnessing the literal creation of objects is one kind of storytelling opportunity, a quieter one can occur when you cruise past vacant desks whose tops are cluttered with tools and decorative components. These kind of still-life subjects are ripe with potential, since they show what is about to happen. They’re also displays of someone’s personal work area, their most individual arrangement of space.
Sometimes the best part of a shopping experience is the unpolished part. Pictures are where you find them, and opportunities reveal themselves when you start looking beyond the obvious locations.
MANY FACES, ONE FAMILY
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I FEEL THAT THERE SHOULD ALWAYS HAVE BEEN A NOBEL PRIZE FOR PHOTOGRAPHY, just as there always has been for literature. Why one of the lively arts should be deemed more capable of uplift or inspiration than another is beyond me. I even think that a photo Nobel might be more inspiring, overall, than the majority of images that cop the journalistic Pulitzer prize each year, since so many of the winning entries focus on horror, loss, war, and suffering….you know, the stuff that sells newspapers.
If there ever had been a Nobel for photography, I can think of no more obvious winner than the legendary Family Of Man exhibit, mounted by Edward Steichen, which just observed its sixtieth anniversary with a marvelously updated edition of its original catalogue book. Steichen, who in 1955 was the director of photography for the Museum of Modern Art, was himself a grand master of still-lifes, portraits, fashion, architectural, and even floral studies, whose own output towered over the world for over seven decades. However, he used the Family show not to showcase his own work but to show the universality of the human experience across every culture on the planet, as interpreted by over 273 photographers in 69 countries. Mounted in cooperation with the United States Information Agency as a diplomatic tool, The Family Of Man celebrates those things that unite us, not the petty divisions amplified by journalists and other mischief makers. It is an inventory of births, deaths, weddings, rituals, weddings, wars, discoveries, and delights. It is a miraculous catalogue on the phenomenon of being human.
Over the years, the optimistic message of Family Of Man fell victim to the ironic detachment and busted ideals of several generations of hipper-than-thou cynics, some criticizing it as a Pollyanna-ish vision of mankind, others saying that it rendered many individual photographers faceless by jumbling all their work together. In fact, all photos in the exhibit are captioned with their creator’s name as well as his/her nation of origin. And as for hope being the antithesis of honest art…well, if you hold that belief, you’re wasting your time here.
Over sixty years later, The Family Of Man remains one of the towering achievements of art and journalist photography, reassembled now in its original presentation format at Clervaux Castle in Steichen’s home country of Luxembourg. Art must be about raising us up, even as we use it to remain mindful of how far we have to come as a race. But I will always, always vote on the side of hope, as Edward Steichen did. The Family Of Man is neither sugar-coated nor bleak. It is both imperfect and filled with potential, as we ourselves are. And its credo, as stated in 1955, remains a lesson for anyone trying to use a camera to chronicle the human condition:
“There is only one man in the world and his name is All Men.There is only one women in the world and her name is All Women.There is only one child in the world and the child’s name is All Children.”
REVERSAL OF FORTUNE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ANYONE WHO HAS EITHER STUDIED OR DABBLED IN CANDID PHOTOGRAPHY has heard Henri-Cartier-Bresson’s term “the decisive moment”, which refers to that heat-lightning instant when the best possible photograph of a situation or sensation can be made. Of course, you don’t have to really believe that there is a single such moment, and many do not. There may be any one of thirty possible frames to be extracted from even the simplest human subjects, but we seem to always be looking for that salient, isolated image that defines it for all time.
Cartier-Bresson’s pursuit of the decisive moment is usually thought of with regard to photographing human activity, but there is also a mindset about photographing places that there can be a “superior” or “best” angle to view them from. That is why landmarks and monuments yield so many pictures that are so much the same. We all shoot the Eiffel Tower the way that everyone else before us has shot it…..because? Well, there’s a great question.
Do we think of earlier images of the tower as a standard of some kind that we only certify by imitation? Is our mind eager to catalogue things in their “proper” orientation? Are we only interesting in what things are “supposed” to look like? Ideally, we should be making pictures to authenticate our own visions, not to rubber-stamp those generated before us. And yet, with famous places, it’s often a case of human see, human ape.
We have to teach ourselves to photograph places as if we were the first to ever point a camera at them. It’s not that hard a habit to cultivate, really. Crank yourself around 180 degrees and take the reverse angle. Move six inches to the left and frame the most obvious part of the cathedral, ruins, or palace out of your composition. It might yield nothing, and then again, it might add enough freshness to the image to overcome what I refer to as “tourist fatigue”.
The above image from the sculpture plaza at the Museum of Modern Art in New York is a near reverse of the more conventional view in the smaller color shot at left, which I first featured in the post Put Yourself Out There a while back. In one shot, the Diana statue is center stage. In the other, she is relegated to the edge of the frame, acting as a pointer toward the rest of the photograph’s information. Extra cost in terms of time to get this very different composition? Ten seconds.
It’s not that re-imagining a subject is that hard. It’s that we so seldom question our first imagining of things, often settling for the first, technically successful image we get. And that first image, as we often learn, might only be a dress rehearsal for the real show.
YOU’RE IN MY SHOT
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE MOST CONSISTENT CRITICISM I’VE CAUGHT ABOUT MY URBAN PHOTOGRAPHY over a lifetime is that it’s a little, well, clinical. Now, it’s true that I like to feature urban spaces in their purest form, or, as near the architect or planner’s original vision as possible. Certainly, the urban dwellings I shoot were designed to serve people, but I can’t resist occasionally showing these spaces as absolute designs, minus the visitors. I realize that, for some, this can render things a little antiseptic, but I don’t mean anything personal (impersonal?) by it.
Comparing notes with other shooters, I find that they, too, occasionally like to just show things that were designed for humans, only without…the humans. And I believe that parks, libraries, and museums can actually increase their profit by accommodating photographers in the same way that they might for their own marketing efforts.
Universally, when it’s time to do a photo feature on an historic site, the first thing that curators do is chase all the peasants off the property and give a photographer exclusive access to the place. You’ll see this to a lesser degree when people shoot real estate listings, and it makes perfect sense. The shooter has time to plan and experiment, without working around an endless supply of kids with Slurpees and moms with strollers. It’s not anti-human, it’s pro-photo.
So here’s the idea: why not dedicate a set amount of an attraction’s weekly tour schedule solely to solo photography tours? Calculate your place’s slow earning days and book those times in, say, half-hour increments, chunks in which the only persons inside the joint would be one employee and one photographer. I know many shooters who would gladly pay a bump of up to 100% of the going tour rate just to ensure privacy, and be allowed to effectively prepare shots.
Parks like Yellowstone, along with a growing list of museums and monuments have already crafted private tour options for photographers. It’s all found money,since all attractions have their dead seasons, weeks or months out of the year when they could throw a bowling ball across the place without hitting anything. Why not use those off-days as moneymakers? I love people, but if I’m visiting a place to have my one shot at capturing a magnificent structure, I hate settling for what I can frame around, versus what I could do if I just had the same access as National Geographic. Just once.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S NOT UNFAIR TO ARGUE THAT MOST MAJOR PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE FAR MORE ELOQUENT with their lenses than with their tongues. The fact that their eyes speak volumes is what distinguishes them as artists, not whatever quick quips they may toss off about why they do what they do. There are a few shooters per generation, however, who really add to the art by sharing the motivations that accompany the making of it. Joe McNally is one such photographer.
Joe, whose work ranges from National Geographic, Life, and Sports Illustrated to his groundbreaking Faces Of Ground Zero, speaks not as a pristine philosopher, but as the grizzled, hard-boiled, run-and-gun, reality-anchored pro that he is. He knows deadlines. He knows the cigar-chomping breath of hate-crazed editors. He know what moves, both emotionally and commercially. And he has written two of the era’s best books (The Moment It Clicks and Hotshoe Diaries) on the real struggles that arise for the professional in the field. No esoteric essays. Just straight-from-the-shoulder truths from the world. A few Joe-isms to treasure forever:
No matter how much crap you gotta plow through to stay alive as a photographer, no matter how many bad assignments, bad days, bad clients, snotty subjects, obnoxious handlers, wigged-out art directors, technical disasters, failures of the mind, body, and will, all the shouldas, couldas, and wouldas that befuddle our brains and creep into our dreams, always remember to make room to shoot what you love. It’s the only way to keep your heart beating as a photographer.
or: I can’t tell you how many pictures I’ve missed, ignored, trampled, or otherwise lost just ‘cause I’ve been so hell bent on getting the shot I think I want.
This is the voice of a guy who’s been stomped on, crowded out, smashed up and beaten silly in the cause of a picture. This is a go-to guy when you want to learn about how to make tough calls and hard choices. And it’s the indefatigable spirit of photography telling you that, however you go out, don’t come back in without the picture. That means to always be looking, and to always be ready, and willing to:
Put it to your eye. You never know. There are lots of reasons, some of them even good, to just leave it on your shoulder or in your bag. Wrong lens. Wrong light. Aaahhh, it’s not that great, what am I gonna do with it anyway? I’ll have to put my coffee down. I’ll just delete it later, why bother? Lots of reasons not to take the dive into the eyepiece and once again try to sort out the world into an effective rectangle. It’s almost always worth it to take a look.
And how does he shoot? Twice as good as he talks. Photographers need, always, to reject comfort, familiarity, habit, ease. Joe’s “Gee” eye reminds us to stay hungry.
And stay on the job.
FRAGMENTS AND SHARDS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
GLASS SURFACES REPRESENT A SERIES OF CHOICES FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS, an endless variety of effects based on the fact that they are both windows and mirrors, bouncing, amplifying or channeling light no less than any other subject in your frame. No two shooters approach the use (or avoidance) of glass as a compositional component in quite the same way. To some, it’s a barrier that they have to get past to present a clear view of their subject. To others, its fragments and shards of angle and light are part of the picture, adding their own commentary or irony.
I usually judge glass’ value in a photograph by two basic qualifiers: context and structure. First, context: suppose you are focused on something that lies just beyond a storefront window. What visual information is outside the scope of the viewer, say something over your shoulder or across the street, that might provide additional impact or context if reflected in the glass that is in direct view? It goes without saying that all reflections are not equal, so automatically factoring them into your photo may add dimension, or merely clutter things up.
The other qualifier is the structure of the glass itself. How does the glass break up, distort, or re-color light within an enclosure? In the above image, for example, I was fascinated by the complex patterns of glass in an auto showroom, especially in the way it reassigned hues once the sun began to set. I had a lot of golden light fighting for dominance with the darker colors of the lit surfaces within the building, making for a kind of cubist effect. No color was trustworthy or natural , and yet everything could be rendered “as is” and regarded by the eye as “real”. The glass was part of the composition, in this instance, and at this precise moment. Midday or morning light would render a completely different effect, perhaps an unwelcome one.
Great artists from Eugene Atget to Robert Frank have created compelling images using glass as a kind character actor in their shots. It’s an easy way to deepen the impact of your shots. Let the shards and fragments act like tiles to assemble your own mosaics.
SEEING THROUGH THE STORM
By MICHAEL PERKINS
LOOK CAREFULLY AT THE PHOTOGRAPH TO YOUR LEFT. It was, at one time, judged by contemporary critics as a grand failure. Alfred Stieglitz, the father of modern photography, and the first to advocate for its status as a legitimate art form, made this image after standing for three hours in the miserable blizzard that had buried the New York of 1893 in mounds of cottony snow.
The coachman and his horses are rendered in a soft haze due to the density of the wind-driven snow, and by the primitive slowness of the photographic plates in use at the time. There was, for photographers, no real option for “freezing the action” (unwitting pun) or rendering the kind of razor sharpness that is now child’s play for the simplest cameras, and so a certain amount of blur was kind of baked into Stieglitz’ project. But look at the dark, moody power of this image! This is a photograph that must live outside the bounds of what we consider “correct”.
More importantly, a technically flawless rendering of this scene would have drained it of half its impact.
Of course, at the time it was created, Stieglitz’ friends encouraged him to throw the “blizzard picture” away. Their simple verdict was that the lack of sharpness had “spoiled” the image. Being imperfect, it was regarded as unworthy. Stieglitz, who would soon edit Camera Work, the world’s first great photographic magazine, and organize the Photo-Secession, America’s first collective of artists for promotion of the photo medium, had already decided that photographs must be more than the mere technical recording of events. They could emphasize drama, create mood, evoke passions, and force the imagination every bit as effectively as did the best paintings.
Within a few years of the making of this image, the members of the Photo-Secession began to tweak and mold their images to actually emulate painting. The movement, called Pictorialism, did not last long, as the young turks of the early 20th century would soon demand an approach to picture-making that matched the modern age. The important thing, however, is that Stieglitz fought for his vision, insisted that there be more than one way to make a picture. That example needs to be followed today more than ever. When you make an image, you must become its champion. This doesn’t mean over-explaining or asking for understanding. It means shooting what you must, honing your craft, and fighting for your vision in the way you bring it to life.
THE SHORT AND WINDING ROAD
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY USED TO LITERALLY BE A MATTER OF MATH. Formulating formulae for harnessing light, predicting the reactivity of chemicals, calculating the interval between wretched and wonderful processing. And all that math, measured in materials, apprenticeship, and learning curves, was expensive. Mistakes were expensive. The time you invested to learn, fail, re-learn, and re-fail was expensive. All of it was a sustained assault on your wallet. It cost you, really cost you, in terms a math whiz could relate to, to be a photographer.
Now, the immediacy of our raw readiness to make a picture is astounding. Well, let’s amend that. To anyone picking up their first camera in the last thirty years, it’s pretty astounding. For those who began shooting ten years ago, it’s kinda cool. And for those falling in love with photography now, today, it’s……normal. Let’s pull that last thought out in the sunshine where we can get a good look at it:
For those just beginning to dabble in photography, the instantaneous gratification of nearly any conceptual wish is normal. Expected. No big deal. And the price of failure? Nil. Non-existent. Was there ever a time when it was a pain, or an effort just to make a picture, you ask Today’s Youth? Answer: not to my knowledge. I think it and I do it. If I don’t like it, I do it again, and again, faster than you can bolt down a burger on a commuter train. It’s just there, like tap water. How can I not be, why should I not be, absolutely fearless?
To take it further, Today’s Youth can learn more in a few months of shooting than their forebears could glean in years. And at an immeasurably small percentage of the sweat, toil, tears and financial investment. They can take a learning curve of rejected photos and failed concepts that used to be a long and winding road for pa and grandpa and compress it into a short and straight walk to the mailbox. And they are not sentimental, since they will not be spending enough time with any technology of any kind long enough to develop a weepy attachment for it, or for “how things used to be”. DSLR? Four-Thirds? Point and Shoot? Hey, anything that lets them take a picture is a camera. Make it so they can flap their eyelash and capture an image, and they’re in.
For some of us, hemmed in by experience, the limits of our technical savvy, and yes, our emotions, photography can be a somewhat formal experience. But for the many coming behind us, it’s just a reflex. A wink of the eye. Any and everything is an extension of their visual brain. Any and everything leads to a picture.
These new shooters will stop at nothing, will quake at nothing, will be awed by nothing, except ideas. They will be bold, because there is no reason not to be. They will take chances, since that, from their vantage point, is the only logical course. Photography is dead, long live photography.
The great awakening is at hand.
SYMBIOSIS OF HORROR
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SHARPER MINDS THAN MINE WILL SPEND AN INFINITE AMOUNT OF EFFORT THIS WEEK CATALOGUING THE COSTS OF THE “GREAT WAR“, the world’s first truly global conflict, sparked by the trigger finger of a Serbian nationalist precisely one hundred years ago. These great doctors of thinkology will stack statistics like cordwood (or corpses) in an effort to quantify the losses in men, horses, nations and empires in the wake of the most horrific episode of the early 20th century.
Those figures will be, by turns, staggering/appalling/saddening/maddening. But in the tables of numbers that measure these losses and impacts, one tabulation can never be made: the immeasurable loss to the world of art, and, by extension, photography.
There can be no quantification of art’s impact in our lives, no number that expresses our loss at its winking out. Photography, not even a century old when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was dispatched to history, was pressed into service to document and measure the war and all its hellish impacts. But no one can know how many war photographers might have turned their lenses to beauty, had worldwide horror not arrested their attention. Likewise, no one can know how many Steichens, Adamses, or Bourke-Whites, clothed in doughboy uniforms, were heaped on the pyre as tribute to Mars and all his minions. Most importantly, we cannot know what their potential art, now forever amputated by tragedy, might have meant to millions seeking the solace of vision or the gasp of discovery.
Photography as an art was shaped by the Great War, as were its tools and techniques, from spy cameras to faster films. The war set up a symbiosis of horror between the irresistible message of that inferno and the unblinking eye of our art. We forever charged certain objects as emblems of that conflict, such that an angel now is either a winged Victory, an agent of vengeance, or a mourner for the dead, depending on the photographer’s aims. That giant step in the medium’s evolution matters, no less than the math that shows how many sheaves of wheat were burned on their way to hungry mouths.
Our sense of what constitutes tragedy as a visual message was fired in the damnable forge of the Great War, along with our ideals and beliefs. Nothing proves that art is a life force like an event which threatens to extinguish that life. One hundred years later, we seem not to have learned too much more about how to avoid tumbling into the abyss than we knew in 1914, but, perhaps, as photographers, we have trained our eye to bear better witness to the dice roll that is humanity.
SCULPTING WITH SHADOWS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE MIRACLES OF CONTEMPORARY PHOTOGRAPHY is how wonderfully oblivious we can afford to be to many of the mechanics of taking a picture. Whereas, in an earlier era, technical steps 1, 2, 3, 4 ,5, and 6 had to be completed before we could even hit the shutter button, we now routinely hop from “1” to “snap” with no thought of the process in between.
In short, we don’t have to sweat the small stuff, a truth that I was reminded of this week when imitating one of photographer’s earliest masters of night photography, Gyula Halasz, or “Brassai”, a nickname which refers to his hometown in Romania. Starting around 1924, Brassai visually made love to the streets of Paris after dark with the primitive cameras of the early 20th century, sculpting shape from shadow with a patiently laborious process of time exposures and creating ghostly, wonderful chronicles of a vanished world. He evolved over decades into one of the most strikingly romantic street artists of all time, and was one of the first photographers to have a show of his work mounted at New York’s MOMA.
Recently, the amazing photo website UTATA (www.utata.org), a workshop exchange for what it calls “tribal photography”, gave its visitors a chance to take their shot at an homage to half a dozen legendary visual stylists. The assignment asked Utata members to take images in the style of their favorite on the list, Brassai being mine.
In an age of limited lenses and horrifically slow films, Brassai’s exposure times were long and hard to calculate. One of his best tricks was lighting up a cigarette as he opened his lens, then timing the exposure by how long it took for the cig to burn down. He even used butts of different lengths and widths to vary his effect. Denizens of the city’s nightlife, walking through his long shots, often registered as ghosts or blurs, adding to the eerie result in photos of fogbound, rain-soaked cobblestone streets. I set out on my “homage” with a tripod in tow, ready to likewise go for a long exposure. Had my subject been less well-lit, I would have needed to do just that, but, as it turned out, a prime 35mm lens open to f/1.8 and set to an ISO of 500 allowed me to shoot handheld in 1/60 of a second, cranking off ten frames in a fraction of the time Brassai would have needed to make one. I felt grateful and guilty at the same time, until I realized that a purely technical advantage was all I had on the old wizard.
Brassai has shot so many of the iconic images that we have all inherited over the gulf of time that one small list from one small writer cannot contain half of them. I ask you instead to click the video link at the end of this post, and learn of, and from, this man.
Many technical land mines have been removed from our paths over photography’s lifetime, but the principal obstacle remains…the distance between head, hand, and heart. We still need to feel more than record, to interpret, more than just capture.
All other refinements are just tools toward that end.
THANKS TO OUR NEW FOLLOWERS! LOOK FOR THEM AT:
- Wonderful Photos of New York in 1957 by Brassaï (vintag.es)
LEARNING TO LIVE WITH “THE NUMBER”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S GUARANTEED. OVER OUR LIFETIMES, YOU AND I WILL TAKE REMARKABLE PHOTOGRAPHS.
There just won’t be a lot of them.
And that’s very good news.
Ansel Adams once remarked that “twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop”.
That’s right. Twelve.
Now, given the percentage of the massive Adams output that actually turned out to be flat-out amazing, the reverse math for how many “close, but no cigar” frames he shot would be staggering. And humbling. This after all, is a man who “experimented” with color for over thirty years, only to lament, near the end of his life that “I have yet to see–much less produce–a color photograph that fulfills my concepts of the objectives of art.” Bear in mind, also, that this lament is not coming from a hipster Instram-ing artsy close-ups of what he had for lunch.
What does this mean for us? It means that there is a number out there, the figure that enumerates how many flops we will have to be content with in order to get our own, small yield of golden eggs.
Learning to live with that number is the best hope have of getting closer to what we can be.
I can’t measure my work against anyone else’s, since “that way lies madness”. I can only mark how far I am along my journey by the distance between what made me smile today and the stuff I used to be able to look at without suppressing a strong gag reflex. Guess what: the same work that makes me want to gouge out my eyes with soup spoons, in the present, is often the exact same work that made my chest swell with pride, just the day before yesterday.
And that’s the way it should be. If your style is so wonderfully complete that it can’t be further improved on, then smash your camera on the street below and move on to something else that has the potential to either spank your ego or kick your creative butt. We’re not in this to get comfortable.
Ansel Adams one more time:
There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.
Yes, huzzah, what he said. Here’s to staying sharp.
And hard to please.
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