the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Authorship

IF YOU SEE IT, IT MATTERS

1/320 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

1/320 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

TOO MUCH OF THE TIME, WE ARE SHOOTING PHOTOGRAPHS TO NOT ONLY BE SEEN BUT “APPRECIATED“. This can become an emotional and artistic trap, since art is not designed to be juried. We’d all like the world to “get” what we do, but it’s all too easy to bend the arc of what we create until it matches the trajectory of what the world will approve.

Think for a moment about how such a tactic can cripple you as a photographer. I mean, stop you in your tracks.

Consider: many photographers will logically move, over time, from showing the world fairly literally to suggesting a special viewpoint, seeing it in a more abstract fashion. They learn to tell more by showing less, by being selective. This is a perfectly logical part of their development, but as a consequence, some of their pictures will inevitably leave some viewers behind. Suddenly, their images are “arty”, or “intellectual”, or whatever other word can be hurled at them to dismiss what they are doing.

But that’s okay. I’m not saying that you should live your life eating worms and striving to be a tortured genius. I just mean to suggest that your vision belongs to you. It’s validity cannot be diminished, unless you do it yourself. Here’s one of my favorite quotes from Life and Look magazine photographer Elliot Erwitt on this :

To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them. 

What a great concept. The thing you are shooting is not content. The way you shoot it is. That means viewpoint and personal interpretation must be more important that objects or subjects. If they are not, there’s no way in hell to make photography be about anything but recording. If they are, thought, ah, then, anything’s possible.

Bottom line, if you aren’t true to your vision, it’s a cinch that no one else ever will be, either.

So there.

 

 

 


THE GREAT RIDDLE

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IT’S FORTUNATE THAT NONE OF US HAS ANY IDEA WHAT APPEALS TO OUR VIEWERS, or else everything we do would revert to a dull formula. If it was possible to predict which of our creations would establish a connection with other hearts and minds, wouldn’t our human nature tempt us to churn out clumsy duplicates of that creation again and again? You see this at craft shows where “artists” hawk dozens of copies of the same image to anyone who passes by, customizing only the frames and enlargement sizes. The first version of the idea was “art”;  the cannily repackaged remakes are merely marketing.

With this in mind, the act of putting photographs on the web via various sharing sites is often a puzzling process, since I have no way of knowing whether anything I regard as “successful” will total even one view, and since the pictures I regard as merely “all right” may resonate in a fashion that I never foresaw. Again, I have no control over any of this, which makes it both gratifying and, well, stupefying.

Dream Gardens, Los Angeles (2013). 1/250 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

Dream Gardens, Los Angeles (2013). 1/250 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

You’re looking at the runaway champ photo for total views in my entire Flickr photostream. To me, it’s a bit of whimsy at best, and, if I am totally truthful, an attempt at a partial “save” on what started out to be a rejected image. Backstory: the massive and visually busy central gardens at Los Angeles’ Getty art campus are wonderful to walk through, irresistible to shoot, and a nightmare to capture. If you do the cliché overhead “master shot” of the entire area from, say, two stories in the air, you get something which generally work. However, trying to get a sense of the densely landscaped details at ground level is a fool’s errand. This shot represents a kind of surrender, as it was an attempt to create a quiet composition along one of the more sparse sections of one footpath. Even so, what you’re seeing here is a paring-away of more than half the original frame. There was just too much visual information to work with.

The psychedelic rework on the color is yet another sign that I am not truly comfortable with what I am doing, but it at least represents an attempt to create an “otherness” with the image, to take it out of the normal world. This strategy gave me a picture I could live with, but hardly one I would point to with pride. The verdict from every one else? 5,000 % more eye traffic than the next most popular picture I’ve ever posted on the web, and no sign of slowing. And yet, I know that if I intentionally take another picture like this, it won’t become part of a “series” or a “school of thought”, merely me trying to cash in on a great riddle.

We use our photography to make a case for our various visions to an unknown jury, but, in most cases, we sort of “get” what worked about a picture. But when mysteries like these occur, we can merely

a) be grateful

b) say goodnight, Gracie.

I am reminded about an old bit where Billy Crystal “imitated” famous people by cutting out the mouths of big posters of various icons, then sticking his own lips where theirs should be and “speaking” for them. I fell on the floor as he took his place behind a huge image of  Albert Einstein, and in his best Catskills accent, kept repeating, “WHO KNEW? WHAT DID WE KNOW??”

What, indeed.

Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye. 


JUDGING BOOKS BY THEIR “COVERS”

A pensive moment with Timothy Egan, Pulitzer prize winning author of "The Worst Hard Time".

A pensive moment with Timothy Egan, “Opinionator”columnist for the New York Times and Pulitzer prize-winning author of “The Worst Hard Time”. 1/80 sec., f/6.3, ISO 1600, 300mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE TUCSON FESTIVAL OF THE BOOK, not yet five years old, has quickly evolved into one of the premier annual events in the publishing world. Hosted over an entire weekend in March during spring break on the University of Arizona campus, it showcases hundreds of authors and thousands of titles that range in content over the entire spectrum of the printed word. It is also one of the most hassle-free environments for candid photography of many world-famous authors, with an atmosphere which is intimate, informal, and bristling with energy.

In the simple discussion forums and panels of the TFOB, authors occupy the immediate space of their readers in a way that fires their features with zeal, a quality that lends itself powerfully to seeing the very faces of books. It’s a shooter’s smorgasbord, and the meeting spaces are compact enough (usually University classrooms) that a good medium zoom boosted to about 1600 ISO will give you captures fairly free of noise and a real feeling of being there. In these smaller settings, a relaxed feeling pervades, with authors evolving into stage performers rather than lecturers. The result is no bloodless reading, but a kind of theatrical sales pitch on behalf of the author’s ideas, one part poet and one part Professor Harold Hill from The Music Man. 

I started shooting at TFOB four years ago and have learned more each year about circumventing the less-than-ideal lighting scheme (there really isn’t any) and clicking off hundreds of “drat!” images that fell short of what I was seeing. Shooting inside by flourescent light always means taking sample images with various white balances and making changes on the fly, as well as compensating for the light fall-off and additional vibration risk that occurs when you’re fully zoomed in.

Best thing is, though, there are almost no visual distractions to lead the eye away from the authors, since

Culture hero Chuck Klosterman, author of "Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs"

Culture hero Chuck Klosterman, author of “Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs”. 1/100 sec., f/6.3, ISO 1600, 116mm.

for the most part they stand before blackboards or blank walls. The shots don’t have to be simplified….they are already pretty stark. In addition, you can just frame head shots for the middle third of the subject’s faces, since you aren’t really there to capture their haircut or the water bottles and mics nearby.

Do yourself a favor and investigate a trip to the southwest each March for this amazing event.

If you love books, it’s essential. If you study faces, it’s the icing on the cake.

(NOTE: follow Michael Perkins on Twitter for the “Normal Eye Clicks Of The Day” and “Today in Photo History” at http://www.twitter.com/mpnormaleye. Share your own images with me, especially Instagram and phone snaps. You are always a vital part of this conversation.)


NO TEACHER, NO GURU, NO METHOD

Waiting for inspiration. Yeah, how's that workin' out for ya?

Waiting for inspiration. Yeah, how’s that workin’ out for ya?  

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THERE MAY NOT BE SUCH A THING IN PHOTOGRAPHY AS “STYLE”.

Hmm? Come again? No way for the artist to brand his persona on his output, to accumulate a body of work stamped with his own exclusive, and wonderful, identity?

Well, given the special nature of photography, maybe not. Think about it. We all emerged as the quasi-legitimate spawn of painting. Yes, you can struggle and wriggle, but The Brush is essentially our aesthetic daddy, the most important shaper of our inherited rules on what to look at, how to see. Of course, we were no sooner whelped than we began dissing the old man, saying we were not at all like painting, that our means of measuring the world was distinct, different, revolutionary. The upshot is that the typical artists’ claim to a personal style, an identifiable visual signature, may not be, in image-making, how we do business at all.

Van Morrison (God’s gift to moody poets) summed it all up in the title of one of his classic albums, No Teacher, No Guru, No Method. And that means that, unlike the painters of antiquity, none of us shoots enough of any one approach to the world to claim that any of us has a “style”. Think about your own images. Is every one of them representative of one kind of thought? Or do you, like most of us, flit from one dynamic to another? Are any of you 100% committed to landscapes? Sacred subjects? Abstractions? Street? Cute kitties? No, and none of us ever were.

One of the most frustrating things about reviewing the careers of the greatest poets (there’s that word again) of photography is that there is no central thread, no typical image for many of the masters. What is the iconic signature of a Steichen, an Avedon, a Weston? Review forty years of photographs from Alfred Eisenstadt during his tenure at Life magazine and pick out one picture which defines him. You can’t. There is no Mona Lisa moment. And perhaps there shouldn’t be.

I’ve been shooting for over forty years, and if someone were to ask me to select one image that absolutely represented the essential me, I’d be dumbstruck. And maybe that’s to be expected. The world’s most democratic medium is also democratic toward its subject matter as well. In photography, unlike painting, everything can be a picture. Anything can be plucked out of the continuity of time and frozen for us to ponder, worship, objectify, or loathe.

We are all self-taught, self-created, without antecedent or influence. No Teacher, No Guru, No Method. It should make us feel free, and can, of course, make us terrified as well.

Here’s the central nugget of that freedom feeling: photography isn’t here “because of”, or “in order to”, or “so that”…..it’s just here.

And that is enough.

(follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.)


TO THINE OWN SELF BE TRUE

This image may not be a masterpiece, but it's mine....unless I willingly give it away. 1/80 sec., f/8, ISO 100, 55mm.

This image may not be a masterpiece, but it’s mine….unless I willingly give it away. Why should we help dig a grave for authorship of our photos?  1/80 sec., f/8, ISO 100, 55mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE CONUNDRUM OF AUTHORSHIP, OR WHAT WE NOW TERM “INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY” RUNS ON A PARALLEL TRACK with the history of photography. Being a mechanical process of printing and reproduction, imaging has, from the first, proven more vulnerable to theft than anything created by the painters’ hand. Indeed, the very means by which photographs became reproducible in mass media such as newspapers and magazines became the first access afforded to thieves of what we ourselves had crafted. It became an unholy bargain. To be seen and discussed, our work had to employ these methods of distribution, and, at the same time, render ourselves vulnerable to those who would spirit away and claim as their own that which they did not create.

Which brings me to the recent brouhaha over Instagram, and its latest user agreement, going into effect in mid-January 2013, which allows the site to redistribute, lease or allocate use of members’ images with no obligation to inform or compensate the creators of those images. This is not my “representation” or “interpretation”. The language of the agreement is so brazenly clear that it’s breathtaking.

Read it.

Reality check: it can easily be argued that our best efforts to certify our claim to our images, through copyright laws, watermarks, terms of service, contracts, etc., still leave us as exposed to harm as a naked mountain climber on a blustery day. But, dear God, that is no reason to help the thieves, or, worse yet, to put ourselves in jeopardy by willingly consigning our work to websites whose stated purpose is to financially benefit by the exploitation of our work.

Instagram has millions of subscribers around the world. Do not ask me why, since I have never seen the benefit of taking mostly mediocre snapshots and rendering them murkier, darker, dirtier or more flawed by the post-application of “fun” filters. I spent my childhood longing for cameras beyond the scope of the cheap plastic boxes affordable to a 12-year-old. Light leaks, color streaks, vignetted corners and lousy chroma were the chains I was longing to break free of, not the post-ironic posturings I thought would render me hip. Toy cameras made bad pictures compared to the cameras grown-ups were using.

Period.

However, while personally writing off Instagram as a harmless toy (even one which has yielded some superior images, by the way), I never saw it as a threat to the sanctity of authorship. Until now. The digital imaging age has encouraged all of us to “give it away” just to get our work noticed (that unholy bargain from Paragraph One), encouraging us to do insane things like send our “on the spot” photos of events (unpaid..!) for use on-air by local TV stations too cheap to put their own photographers in the field. How nice that we have volunteered to be their uncompensated photog team. What a feeling of community, of belonging. Ick.

It should be noted that, following a crap-storm of anger over their announced new user agreement (as of 12/18/12), Instagram has sought to “clarify” their intent, claiming that the agreement’s “language” may have caused consternation.

No duh.

We’ll see what happens, but as of this writing, throngs of tweeters and others have announced their intention to bail, like the jilted lovers they feel themselves to be.

Like I said at the top, it is our need to have our work seen that has often made us shake hands with the devil. With the Instagram debacle, however,we are also fixing him a hot lunch, offering him wine and cigars afterward, and finishing up with a deep tissue message so he can digest properly.

If we sign up for this swindle, it’s on us.

Thoughts?