By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE PICTURE YOU SEE HERE is not the type of photo I typically do a lot. And that’s odd, because it seems, in some way a prime example of what we all seek when we go out to photograph. Use your own term for it…slice of life, the common man, street photography..the list of names is long, but the idea is the same: the practice of recording something of life, from life, that reminds us of our universal humanity in some small way.
Maybe that word small is the key to it. In normal times (remember those?) we hardly blink at the millions of wee moments that aggregate to the total of our sense of “normalcy”. And if we don’t notice these millions of mini-moments ourselves, we trust artists to notice them for us, to amplify the ordinary into the marvelous. But the artist’s eye can fail as well, can become blind to minutia, aiming for bigger game to portray or preserve. The mega-calamities; the earthquakes; or, in the current world context, the boarded-up shops and empty streets. Everyone wants to take The Big Picture that explains it all, and it’s easy to forget that a large tapestry of tiny testimonies, mini-moments, can be woven into a Big Picture as well.
Even in these soul-testing times, the scene shown here is hardly front page news; Couple Walks Dog. And yet, its very ordinariness (may not be a word, look it up, campers) can be reassuring in a time when routine has been ripped to rags and not much can be taken for granted. In such a world, a child’s laugh, a sunlit hollow, a scene that appears to be part of An Uninterrupted Life, can become precious. Hardly forty-eight hours has passed since I shot this picture, and yet, in that short span of time, it has gone from a casual snap to something I hold to be precious. Certainly not for any innate skill in its execution or groundbreakingly fresh approach, but, again, for the appearance that, despite everything, some things will go on, and that we can well afford, in this superabundance of spare time, to slow down and savor them.
One of the wondrous things that was lost in the transition from analog to digital photography was the deliberateness, the necessary caution and calculation that used to go into the making of every shot. Mistakes were costly and gratification was delayed, and our slower, more reflective method reflected that. Maybe, during this forced time-out, the best thing we can do for our photographer’s eye is to allow it to notice more of everything, to slow our roll and harvest the million little fireflies that have always been swirling about our unseeing gaze.
(FIAT LUX, Michael Perkins’ newest collection of images, is now available from NormalEye Books.)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE NATURALLY DRAWN TO TRY TO SOLVE MYSTERIES, with many pictures providing sufficient data to reveal or imply a complete story. The still image can feel confining, though, since its space and time limits are strict and unforgiving, and so, narration-wise, we ask a lot of a single frame, and, in turn, we also ask a lot of our target audiences, expecting them to infer what isn’t stated, supply in their minds what goes beyond the things we’ve chosen to show. The tension between what a photographer tries to relate and what a viewer manages to extract is strong, so strong that it can often exceed our talents. We are always trying to lock down all aspects of the tale, and sometimes we don’t succeed.
And then there is the opposite drive, the urge to remove important information from a picture, asking even more of the viewer as we purposely hold back clues. Some photographs can almost seem to starve the eye, a strange effect indeed in a visual medium. What happened before we came to this place? Who are these people? What are they here for? What happens next? Good photographers know how to amass enough information to tell a story. Great photographers can pare away so much information that their pictures become a deliberately constructed puzzle. And as for the creative process, sometimes photographers get a subject or scene in view and don’t know, ourselves, what it really is we’re seeing. Instinct pushes us ahead to click the shutter anyway, convincing us that this incomplete story may have something more to give in future.
The picture seen here is an example of something I felt was intriguing in the moment, and yet, looking at it afterwards, I’m unsure whether it works or not. There are no clear hints of what the people in it are doing. Are they mere passersby, or engaged in some special mission? Does the light create a mood of anticipation? Of concern or dread? Does the shot’s conversion to monochrome help its overall mood, or does it just make it tougher to decode? Perhaps I just reacted to the composition or the light, and nothing more. And what could someone else would bring to the picture by looking at it? The frustrating part of these kinds of inner dialogue is that there is no final answer, because I didn’t select or set up this scene with the idea of conveying anything specific. I wasn’t working with intention. As with thousands of pictures over a shooter’s life, this is an instance in which I just reacted in the moment, and the results may or may not be of any value.
Narratives are strange things. We are often not in complete control of stories as they come forth, even though we would like to believe that we always act under some kind of plan. Sometimes pictures just happen. We are either open to that success/failure coin toss or we aren’t, but our attitude will color the kinds of pictures we’re willing to make.
SPLENDOR ON THE DOWN LOW
By MICHAEL PERKINS
A WHOLE SUB-UNIVERSE OF PHOTOGRAPHY, as we near the two-century mark for the art, is devoted to emulation, or the artificial creation of the look of some part of photography’s past. This can include the aspect of a bygone lens, the framing offered by certain old cameras, and, in recent years, the digital simulation of the look of certain film emulsions. Seems that no sooner had we left the analog world than we began to devise ways to bring it back….or at least summon its ghost. Suddenly, through apps and other editing platforms, people who never shot a frame of film in their lives can render the color bias, grain, and even the speed (light sensitivity) of old stock. Part of this mini-craze is, of course, pure nostalgia, a longing for a certain simpler…. something. Part of it is also irony, as we use old recording media to impart a specific mood to a contemporary shot that it might not otherwise possess.
The revived visual impact of film in the digital era is reminiscent of those old-time photo booths that popped up at tourist attractions decades ago, providing customers with quaint costumes in which they might pose for sepia-toned “tintypes”, casting their families as pioneers and cowpokes. Today, faux-film is a tremendous profit machine within the world of phone apps, and is even creeping back in the recent resurgence of instant photography, which was resurrected in part because, hey, that weirdly imbalanced Polaroid film looked so cool. I have my own personal weakness in all of this, as a lifelong fan of Kodachrome slide film, which winked out of existence after nearly three quarters of a century just a few years ago. Kodachrome struck many as a very naturalistic kind of color medium, and it certainly introduced millions of amateurs to color in the 1930’s, just about the time shooters also embraced 35mm roll film. Everyone had to shoot a ton of the stuff, however, to get a high yield of usable images, mostly because it was verrrrry slow (50 ASA/ISO, although it eventually crawled to 100) and thus seriously prone to underexposure if you didn’t calculate your shots just so. Today, cameras do so much of all that figgerin’ that even those who still shoot film (you know who you are) don’t have half the head-scratching math their forebears needed just to take a snap. Still, I (and we) hunger for the look produced in the day when it was all too easy to make an expensive error. The horse, in uncertain times, even during a barn fire, always heads for the barn.
Of course, if you truly emulate a film, you also emulate everything that it did, good or bad, and one of Kodachrome’s artifacts, when slightly underexposed, was to enrich and deepen colors. Being basically lazy by nature, when I want that kind of muted, voluptuous look, I simply underexpose my shots by a few aperture stops….not enough to lose all detail in the dark areas, but enough to boost intensity and warmth and isolate the brighter elements from the darker ones with more pronounced contrast. The other way to get the same result, as seen in the above image, is to take an already dark scene (like this late sunset) and either speed up the shutter, to make it a mite darker, or use a fast shutter and an ISO that’s only raised to about half of what a “correct” exposure might require.
Like any other “look”, my Kinda-Kodachrome is not a consistent signature of my work, but an occasional fun asterisk on it. At some point, some able app-smith may eventually craft a faithful approximation of it, but, until then, I have fun blending old and new elements into a kind of composite-tribute of my own. Photography itself has always been like twin-headed Janus, looking into the past and future at the same time. Such is the dual goal of all art. Every time you record the now, you’re using the wisdom of the was.
OUT ON THE EDGE OF NEXT
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS KNOW THAT THE NIGHT HOLDS A SPECIAL POTENTIAL FOR ACTION, a condition mysteriously distinct from that of daytime. Yes, we all know that there is, technically, nothing in our after-dark scenes that wasn’t there in the light (isn’t that what we tell anxious kids as we tuck them in?), but all the same, the shadows seem to, in a sense, withhold information, or at least re-shape it somehow. A conversation from the day becomes, in the night, slightly conspiratorial. Colors that register as merely garish in the day can become threatening in the shadows of evening. And photographers aren’t the only artists who sense this transformation. Poets, painters, songwriters….all take careful measure of the two worlds defined by the day/night demarcation, all taking note that light, or its absence, is more than mere atmosphere, but also mood, even intention.
In recent days, as I tumble all this over in my mind, I’ve been reviewing a whole series of night shots that I believe have a particular flavor that they may not have had, were they shot during the day. I’ve also been running a musical playlist of songs that seek to capture this same strange phenomenon. Rock ‘n’ roll, with its special emphasis on the restless and rambling impulses of youth, is strongest when it comes to characterizing that urge to move, to discover, to dare or rebel. You will no doubt have songs that you believe best frame these feelings. Some are simple, others more ornate, but, for my money, none come close to the compact, precise, and emotionally direct language of Van Morrison’s Wild Night. Regard for a moment, if you will, the random carnival shot above, and sink yourself into Morrison’s unique invitation to join the ranks of a special kind of shadowy wanderer:
As you brush your shoes, stand before the mirror
And you comb your hair, grab your coat and hat
And you walk, wet streets tryin’ to remember
All the wild night breezes in your mem’ry ever
And ev’rything looks so complete when you’re walkin’ out on the street
And the wind catches your feet, sends you flyin’, cryin’
Wild night is calling
Wild night is calling
And all the girls walk by, dressed up for each other
And the boys do the boogie-woogie on the corner of the street
And the people, passin’ by stare in wild wonder
And the inside juke-box roars out just like thunder
And ev’rything looks so complete when you’re walkin’ out on the street
And the wind catches your feet
And sends you flyin’, cryin’
Wild night is calling
Wild night is calling, alright
The wild night is calling
The wild night is calling
Come on out and dance
Whoa, come on out and make romance
c) 1971 WB Music. Corp / Caledonia Soul Music (ASCAP). All rights reserved.
Anticipation. Experimentation. Potential. Mystery.
The wild night is calling, and sending images racing into hearts.
Come on out and make romance.
THE NEW LONELY
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF, AS A PHOTOGRAPHER, you wish to depict humanity as your mind would arrange and design it, then a formal sitting or a studio setting would seem to be the place where you could exercise the most creative control. If, on the other hand, you wish to capture humanity in the act of just, well, being, then street work is probably better. This means taking what you get from people, behavior-wise, and noticing how those behaviors shift and evolve.
Street work is truly a barometer on what’s important to people, from the fashions they wear to the conveyances that take them around to what they prize most about daily life. And, in this part of the twenty-first century, that means how they interact with cellular phones.
The ubiquity and non-stop use of these devices is now simply a part of the visual vocabulary of street photography. It has become, in a very short space of time, nearly impossible to take a candid scene without recording someone on their phone….consulting it, catching up with it, charging it, using it for social connectivity. This has become a real challenge for me, since I believe that the best social pictures come from evidence of inter-action between people in real time, in real physical places. What I have to work with, instead, is a crop of one-sided interactions. There may be some human drama in such images (imagine outrage, surprise, delight playing out on phoners’ faces), but I frequently just chuck many of these frames from a street batch because I, personally, can’t extract any kind of story from them.
Of course, isolation as an urban condition is not new, nor is it even novel in the street shooter’s experience. Seventy-year old photos of commuters crammed on the subway, each mesmerized by his or her own personal newspaper, reflects just as much loneliness as a present-day scene of crowds all separately entranced by their mobiles. And yet the cellphone has produced a new kind of lonely, with greater numbers of us showing a more complete pulling away from each other. I find this sad, and, while that feeling, by itself, can also produce a good picture, I still, typically, put such images in my “pass” pile.
This one registered a little differently with me.
I really had no interest in the two people in the frame other than their ability to take up compositional space and account for a wide range of light contrast, something I always like to practice with. So I must be honest and report that, in the actual taking of the picture, their “story” was not on my radar. Moreover, given how many hundreds of other “phoners” I’ve accidentally recorded, usually concluding that there was “no picture there”, I think I can be forgiven a certain dismissiveness in snapping the photo. It was only later that the completeness of their isolation struck me. Not only are they facing away from the somewhat scenic, bright view out the window, but they are completely isolated from each other. As it happens, they are in a Manhattan museum which, even if you were to completely eschew the contents of the exhibits, offers any number of stunning skyline scenes out the windows, including several high-rise walk-out platforms. But none of that matters to this pair, any more than they matter to each other, or whether a live, nude performance of King Lear would matter, were it just inches away from them. Their place in the present world does not matter…..only their proximity to a wall outlet. This, to me, is beyond isolation. This is self-banishment, and, in this case, the image I accidentally snapped of the condition shows, at least in miniature, the crux of the dilemma: the fact that we have become one international village of strangers.
But if we completely ignore this phenomenon, of what are we to craft street images that are accurate testimony of our age? Are there deeper stories behind this tsunami of blank faces, stories that are worth pursuing? Or do we, as photographers, just turn away from those who have turned away?
I really wish I knew.
COME TO THE DARK SIDE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MY FATHER, SENSING THAT, AS A CHILD, I WAS ANXIOUS about turning out the lights at bedtime, explained calmly to me that there wasn’t anything in my darkened room that wasn’t there in the daytime as well.
It was a reasonable enough argument that I stopped thinking of my bed as a backstage repository for monsters. Still not sure about the inside of the closet, though.
Later, however, I was to realize that, in a sense, Dad was dead wrong in photographic terms, since all we really have to paint scenes with is light, a commodity which is drastically different before and after sundown.
One of the reasons I still take out the old tripod to bother with long night-time exposures is that the color relationships, and thus how we interpret the arrangement of light, are so very different than those seen in the day. We’re not just talking about the difference between lots of light and not much light. The way the colors fit with each other is vastly different when comparing night versus day. Imagine lighting your very favorite food until it takes on a hue so unnatural that you can no longer eat it. Consider pink peas, green steak, brown water….you get the idea. Now compare the daytime value of a color under natural light to its night-time equivalent, lit by either dying daylight or artificial illumination or some strange combination of both. I think the value of making comparative photos of objects over a variety of hours will stun you if you make the time for the exercise. It will also give you an amazing number of alternative choices for how you wish to render color, and under what circumstances.
We’ve all see those essays in which a photographer stays in one position along the rim of the Grand Canyon for many consecutive hours, interpreting the color and light shifts in the gorge over the course of a single day. But you don’t have schedule a vacation in Arizona to make your own demonstration of this idea. Anything that you think you know about, or know the “best” way to photograph, will make a good test subject. As a matter of fact, the more ordinary the scene, the better, since your evaluation of the results will force you to concentrate on just the light values alone, without excess distraction. For an example, the image seen here is of a desert botanical garden in the American southwest an hour after sunset. The sky as seen here is not brilliantly blue, but neither is it absolutely black. The concrete wall in front, beige during the day, is feeding off the sodium lights from the gift shoppe at right and registers as orange. The greens in the agaves and succulents are not the same tepid hue that they’d “read” in the afternoon, becoming something a bit more emerald-ish, while the shrubs are a more pronounced gold than they’d register at noon. More interestingly, all of the colors, transformed from the familiar, are now in a different dialogue with each other. Their relationships seem off, lending a slight surreality to the scene. I only wish I had thought ahead to take several more images spaced over an entire day to better demonstrate my point, although I know, from having done so in the past, that the contrasts can be quite dramatic.
Of course, the picture is not, in and of itself, anything to boast about, but it gives me a test pattern for similar shots in the future, shots for which I will really want to achieve a particular look. This also fits into my overall view of photography, which is that every shot is, in a sense, a rehearsal for another shot. So it sometimes seems that we take a lot of pictures that believe “don’t matter” to get the ones that do, only, paradoxically, if one photograph is a sketch for a later one, then indeed they all matter anyway.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CHOICES ARE WHAT HAPPENS WHEN TIME AND OPPORTUNITY MEET. The more one has the chance to see, coupled with the leisure to explore or appreciate the value of what one sees, the more a photograph has the freedom to breathe, to percolate, or indeed to happen at all. And perceiving when all these conditions are in play can lead to images that often were not on your original agenda, but revealed themselves while you were preparing to do “something else”. Let’s think of it as being divided into journey pictures and destination pictures.
The destination picture is, of course, the one we came to shoot, the task or target of the day. The journey picture makes itself manifest as we are on the way to the destination….walking, waiting, enduring detours or delays. Picture the destination as a mountain top and the journey as the steps up that mountain. We can visualize how great the view from the summit will be, but we can also learn to see opportunities at every stage of our upward trek. Eventually some of our favorite pictures are those we shoot of something else on the way. They may in fact be better than the destination shot we had in mind.
Walks along paths, views from connecting trains or buses, even, as seen in the above image, transitions between floors in stairwells may not be “about” something as much as our main photographic quarry. However, it’s short-sighted to think of only point “A” or point “B” as worthy of our attention, when things at point “A-plus-1/4” or point “B-minus-1/2” might also be viable. Remember what we said at the beginning about the meeting of time and opportunity. Consider the technique that accompanies our formal plan. We’d be likely to take all the time and shots we felt necessary once we’d ascended our imaginary mountain. We’d resist being rushed. We’d be eager to explore every angle, exposure and compositional choice. However, we can get into such a rush trying to get topside that we ignore any or all of the fruits available on our ascent, or we might be in some kind of self-imposed hurry that would prevent our slowing down along the way to seize many other chances. Certainly, it’s human to prioritize things, and so we arrive at many photographic sites with a list of things we must do, a list-making exercise that can shut down our full creativity, narrowing the flow of “acceptable” subject matter, turning an open mind into a kinked garden hose.
The shot you see here was actually a very instantaneous one, the keeper among three or four frames, and, unless you love stairs, the picture is not “about” anything per se: the subject matter, the story, is light. But look at the light there was to work with! It has gradations from yellow to gold to red to green: it reveals and conceals at the same time: and it’s such a great “explainer” of the marble texture that nothing else needs to be going on in the shot….it just is. Now, everyone is different. I myself could easily have missed this shot, fixated as I was on where I was heading and worrying about having enough time once I got there. But trying for this image only cost me seconds, yet it was time enough to pair with opportunity and give me…options. Learning to see is not only about having things register on the optic nerve: it’s also about learning to think editorially, discriminately. To being open. Looking back over the camera roll this came from, the thing I was scrambling up the stairs to shoot was actually a bit of a disappointment. The thing on the way was, in reality, a better way to spend my time, and exercise my eye.
WHAT DID I MEAN BY THAT?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOGA TEACHERS, AT THE START OF CLASS, often invite their students to “set their intention” for the session, making at least part of what is largely a physical effort a partially mental one as well. Said intention need not be the achievement of world peace or the eradication of disease, of course. Often, just deciding that you’re going to exit the hour with a clearer brain than you entered it is plenty. The idea is chiefly to form the habit of pre-planning the experience, of asking yourself “what do I expect from this?” It’s also the best kind of mental conditioning for the making (rather than the taking) of photographs.
Even in the most casual snapshot, there is at least an instant in which “intention” is set and a plan is executed. There is, truly, no such thing as a pure photographic accident. Certainly, you may not have sufficient time or technique to make a shot work out, but just because you weren’t able to get what you set out to get, your intention was established. Some instantaneous judgement call that “this might make a good picture” is in operation, always.
The trick over time for improving one’s success rate is thus twofold: first, to close the gap between what you envision and what you can deliver, and, second, developing the means to, through processing and editing, rescue or even re-set your intention for a given picture. In normal-people circles, this process is called “changing your mind”. Seriously, what is post-processing in most cases but a renegotiation of your original intention? What photographer willingly accepts the ideal of “straight out of the camera” if it means that his/her vision actually goes straight into the sewer? When Ansel Adams called the photographic negative “the score” and the print “the performance”, he was, in fact, asserting that exactly half of a photograph’s destiny is decided after the click of the shutter, something that, thankfully, is a more universally embraced belief in the digital era, which, not incidentally, has placed more control within the reach and budget of billions of users, a control that means choices. Let’s be clear, however: this is not about “saving” bad pictures. It’s about polishing the gems.
One of the simplest ways I myself re-juggle the intention of a shot is in the light relationships. The image you see in the thumbnail here is an original from a series of shots I took on a gorgeous Saturday morning in spring of 2015, conditions which perfectly served the picture of the church as I first envisioned it. The sunlit version emphasizes detail and a very light color scheme. By comparison, the reprocessed version (above) is practically what movie folks used to call “day for night”…that is, shooting during the day in such a way that resembles night, but preserves discernible information in a way that true night shooting obscures. The color scheme is very deep, and nearly all detail is sacrificed except that of the front of the building, which is made to appear as if it were illuminated by the warm light of a setting sun. The shift of the intention exchanges the effect of all that fine detail for the impact of understatement. More to the point, I don’t need to show the grit of every stone or the grain of every slab of wood to make the picture work, and so what is paramount in a day-lit shot becomes expendable, even excessive, in the nighttime version.
Again, even in the most reactive of snaps, all photographers know what they are going for. If they get some of it ahead of the click, with the rest of it recoverable through processing, why are those tweaks any less of a “setting” than the shooter’s original choices of aperture or shutter speed? Can the precious purity of SOOC (straight out of the camera) actually make us abandon pictures that might, with a little encouragement, make the finals? And why should that be?
THE CAB IS HERE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FEWER DEVICES HAVE SHORTENED THE DISTANCE between an artist’s thought and his deed like the camera. Unlike musical instruments, paint brushes, or other tools of the creator’s trade, the camera takes you from conception to completed act in a matter of seconds. Of course, that’s when everything else is going right….
There are times when even the seemingly immediate response of the shutter still lags behind the mind in conceiving a visual message, when super-fast still feels horribly slow. Some concepts sprout and die with the rapidity of heat lightning, with the photographer racing to traverse the distance from inspiration to execution, and, occasionally, failing. In such instances, such as the moment that the cab arrives or the light changes or someone is just urging you let’s go, you have to go for broke and gamble on your idea. Fortunately, even those instances in which your efforts seem to crash and burn are instructive. In aviation, the saying goes that any landing you walk away is a good one. I’d adapt that sentiment to read: any picture that shows any of what you were trying to portray is a step closer to the right shot.
But first you have to attempt it.
We’ve spoken at length in this forum about how the only picture you truly regret is the one you didn’t take, and, as cliched as that statement is, it bears repeating. Because among the shots that miss by a mile are the ones that only miss by inches, and those are the ones that keep us doing this. In the above image, I am scrambling. A lot. I am standing near the front entrance of what’s soon to become my former hotel, and waiting, waiting, waiting, for my wife to contact/hire a ride share service. I decide to burn away those unused moments by trying to catch the uniformed staff at their endless task of welcomes/goodbyes for guests connecting to curbside transportation. I’m pushing a carry-on, wearing a DSLR by a shoulder strap and trying to guess an exposure that I’ll have to try to hit one-handed. I’m seconds away from being ready when I’m told our ride is three minutes away. We have plenty of time to get to the airport, but just the same, I’m now on deadline. A short fuse. Make or break. I don’t want to dawdle needlessly, since, over a long weekend, I have already paused to frame enough shots that I have exhausted my allotted ration of marital goodwill. You know the moment. It’s somewhere between an exasperated sigh and the sentence, “are you still taking pictures?” I also hate to fight too ardently for this one, since I’m only half sure of not only the exposure but the concept in general. I should probably just grab by bag and git.
Even at this point, I still can’t decide if I got everything I wanted here. I liked reducing the greeters and their gear to silhouettes, but in doing so I also eliminated a lot of the glowing gold of a late San Francisco afternoon. I said a quick prayer, squeezed off four shots with small adjustments in between, and decided I had to make a dignified exit. But what I said earlier about near misses still applies here. It’s not a complete boff, but it’s not a contest winner either. Can I use the experience to deliver a better result from a similar situation sometime in the future? Ah, well, that’s why we call this thing we do an “art” and not a “science”. I will live to fight,….er, shoot, another day. And that’s all any photographer wants anyhow. The next shot.
For therein lies redemption…….
LIGHT ‘EM UP
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE GLOBAL INTRODUCTION OF ELECTRICITY IN THE 19th CENTURY was one of several singular scientific events that arrived in close parallel to the birth and development of photography. Prior to the throwing of the first voltage switches around the world, most objects had only one image identity, that being how they looked when delineated by natural daylight. After that first surge of power, however, the idea of “lighting” something….that is, creating a specific scheme for illuminating it at night, began to suggest itself as a specialized art in itself. These first mass glowings were, suitably, mass gatherings like expositions, world’s fairs, and circuses, with a new breed of engineer deliberately designing how something should appear when lit, making those kinds of choices for the very first time. And even as the Victorian era was exploring new ballets of shadow, frequency, intensity and color in cities all over the globe, photography was also trying to free itself from the limits of light as historically dictated by local sunset. Suddenly there were two ways to see everything, with many objects having a completely different visual signature when viewed after dark.
Decades later, we hardly stop to consider how very distinctive a city’s day is from its night. It seems as if things have always been this way, with many of us customizing the bright/dark light schemes of our personal gardens and homes in a way that only city planners and showmen could have accomplished a century ago. And yet, there are still things which create dramatic contrast between its daytime and nighttime versions. One of these is the brash collision of color and sensation that, as a holdover from the 1800’s, is finally vanishing from American life: the carnival midway. Subtle as a brickbat, corny as a Kansas cob and vivid to the point of vulgarity, carnies still crop up in vacant lots and small towns across America, continuing to enchant with their odd mix of ballyhoo and mystery. They are brash, loud, crude, and great fun. All our 21st-century entertainment options off to the side, there is still something visually visceral about these slightly disreputable encampments from the days of P.T. Barnum. They cry out for cameras, reminding us of an era in which a mere change of light was enough to quicken the imagination.
Daytime at a carnival is a tamer prelude to the noise and song that will explode from the tents and rides after sundown. Nothing is natural, yet everything is believable. The weird, seductive magic of blaring neon and exploding color still tugs at the photographer’s eye, building and intensifying as afternoon becomes dusk and dusk becomes show time. Everything in such an over-the-top environment deserves to be viewed by both day and night, as it’s often hard to imagine that two views of the same things could be so amazingly different. Circuses and tent shows historically were a great testing ground for the first color films, and they still test the performance of both gear and shooter today. Photography and artificial light, born side by side, are still strongly about putting on a performance. The show must go on.
WHEN NOTHING TURNS OUT TO BE EVERYTHING
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVER SINCE ADAM AND EVE BIT THAT DAMNED APPLE, humans have demonstrated that the thing they really want is the thing they are told they can’t have.
Stay with me here: this actually has a lot to do with photography.
Deny somebody something and they will long for it, lust after it, obsess about it. Consider the case of the Portugeuse, who, for a while, tried to run things in Mozambique, in order to harvest that African nation’s rubber, and who told the locals that their traditional ceremonial instrument, an early kind of xylophone called the mbila, would henceforth be forbidden as a cultural expression. As a result, an entire underground of information on how to play it was maintained by exiled miners, prisoners, and assorted other rebels. The result? Eventually the Portugeuse left: the mbila stayed. Today, the instrument is even featured on the local currency.
We can’t have it? Wanna bet?
Humans. Go figure.
But back to photography, where, similarly, the thing we are “told” we “can’t have”, at least in an image, is whatever is left out of the frame. Missing detail. People rendered in shadow. An activity that’s implied by the manner in which part of it is cropped. We love what the photographer shows but we hunger for what he leaves out.
Out-the-window shots are a great source of this phenomenon, since shooters are usually forced to expose for either what is in front of said window or beyond it….but seldom both. The rise of HDR and tone mapping in recent years has tried to address this, rendering everything in the same degree of illumination, often with bracketed exposures, from light to dark, that are blended afterwords in software. But there’s a problem. Many HDR’s are simply over-processed, defying the mind’s knowledge of the proper relationships between light and dark. Everything’s visible but can easily be garish, unnatural. And so many of us go back to simply deciding what selected parts to illuminate in an image, and which to leave undefined. That means some darkness, which in turn means some things don’t get shown. And, if we’re lucky, those things that we don’t reveal can be more tantalizing than those that we do.
I was walking around the back of the old Terminal building in San Francisco, which is the place that all the city’s ferries used to dock and disembark before the Golden Gate Bridge was built, making many daily boat trips across the bay unnecessary. The building now houses eateries, produce stands, and an insane amount of tourist traffic, much of it crowded into restaurants such as the one seen here. The view out the back includes the Bay Bridge and the local ship traffic, as well as the occasional sailboat, such as the one seen here. I exposed for the scenery, leaving the restaurant’s patrons and workers in shadow. The scalloped, rather “peek-a-boo” view that resulted keeps the image from being a standard postcard shot, but while that “purity” is lost, what’s gained is a smidge of mystery about the shadowy folks in front. What are their conversations about? Why are they here?
I am just suggesting here that, instead of always regarding an image like this as a “blocked” or “obstructed” view of a scenic vista, you can choose to tantalize your viewer by providing a partial reveal of both foreground and background, since their inclination is already, like that of Adam and Eve, to obtain what they’re denied (in this case, by the exposure and the limits of the frame). Sometimes, in a photograph, a nothing can be a very important something. It all depends on who’s looking and what they themselves bring to the experience. In that way, they and the photographer are having a conversation. Which is kind of the idea.
SETTLING FOR LESS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AT THIS WRITING, or January of 2019, your humble author is anticipating a little side trip back into film technology, as I await delivery of a roll of the re-introduced Kodak Ektachrome 35mm reversal film. The stock will be fairly slowly rated at 100 speed, so, along with the generally unforgiving nature of slide film, there will be more than enough potential for the final product to come in on the underexposed side. Which is fine with me.
Years ago, I fell in love with the hyper-saturation I got when I accidentally under-exposed original Ektachrome and its even slower cousin, the lost and lamented Kodachrome. So once I load the E-roll into my old Minolta SRT-200, I might even try to deliberately push the bottom end of the stuff to see just how minimal I can make the shots……which got me thinking about recent instances in which I tried to get that Dutch-lit effect digitally. Turns out that there were more than a few of them in the year just gone by, and so I preceded to gather up a short stack for a new page called When Lights Are Low, joining the other tabs at the top of this page as of this posting.
There are no coordinating themes in this grouping, just the common experiment of undercranking the exposure to see just how much you can do with how little. A few of the images were the subject of earlier essays in these pages: most haven’t been seen before. Of course, shooting film again is, for me, returning to the high risk and low reward of the medium, which can be, let’s face it, a chance to avenge old sins. Maybe this time I’ll get it right.
When it comes right down to it, film is very aspirational: you have to invest a lot of hope in it at the front end, and be happier with a much slimmer harvest of usable goodies than in the digital world. But it’s occasionally fun to take a filmic effect that you’ve learned to emulate in digital and try to achieve it, you know, on film. Whatever that proves is to be decided by those of you out there in the darkness who are sporting degrees in psychoanalysis. Meanwhile, the whole thing makes my head hurt, so I’m going to go lie down. Cheers.
KINGDOMS OF NON-KEEPERS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE BLESSINGS OF DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY (and the best argument for laying aside film) is the nearly endless and affordable numbers of “do-overs” it affords the learning shooter. Cranking out the sheer volume of practice frames needed to hone one’s skills and train one’s eyes used to be costly in both currency and years. As a consequence, many photographers had far fewer successful experiences than others. Money and time separated those who mastered their methodologies and those who were forced to click and trust to luck.
Digital cameras, through their pure scientific advancement, guaranteed that many more of our most hurried snaps were at least technically passable. But they gave us a far more important gift….the ability to speed up our learning curve through a speedy, risk-free process of constant feedback….an endless stream of yes/no, pass/fail messages that shape our work over the course of months instead of years, allowing us to understand what is going wrong, and fix it in the moment, while the family is still gathered in this room, while that amazing sunset is still grabbable. We learn everything faster, especially the use of new equipment.
Part of this “break-in” process for gear, at least for me, is to select something, anything to shoot with it……to not wait for a perfect occasion or an ideal subject, but to seek examples of the conditions under which I want to use the new gear. Any place can become a sort of kingdom of non-keepers, a lab for images where I don’t expect to do much more than make mistakes.
This kind of experimentation is perfect for days with iffy weather or drab, overworked locales, since part of learning a lens is figuring out how to make the ordinary extraordinary in any and all conditions. To my earlier point, shooting in this way seemed (to me) wasteful and risky with film: you always felt that you had to get a good return-on-investment for whatever the roll and processing were costing you. That could unconsciously lead you to shoot more conservatively, to play things safe, lest your crop of keepers be diminished by doing something reckless. But that’s the rub, innit? “Reckless” is where the good stuff comes from.
The shot seen here is from such a “let’s see what happens” shoot, a quick walk through a shopping mall I’ve visited a jillion times. The site has long since ceased to show me anything fresh to look at, but it sports a wide range of light conditions and textures throughout a typical day, so it is an appropriate kingdom for non-keepers, and a good place to crank off about fifty shots with a manual lens that’s still kicking my behind on precise focus. As it turns out, this particular piece of glass (a Soviet-era Helios 44) is soft even at its sharpest, but since that’s something I actually desire at times, practice is a must.
I’m a big believer, then, of shooting lots of pictures that “don’t matter”…..because they make you ready for the day when they really do. And because, once you can think less about how to take a picture, you can spend more time thinking about why you take it.
SITUATION WELL IN HAND
By MICHAEL PERKINS
A SELECTIVE READING OF SOME of the posts featured in The Normal Eye over the years might give the impression that I am “anti-flash” in my approach to photography. A closer look, however, would reveal that I am more properly non-flash….that, while I stipulate that judicious use of artificial light can be amazing, (a) it can often do more harm than good, and (b) there are fewer situations in which it’s needed than at any other point in time. So, anti……no. But non…..absolutely.
Choosing not to use flash in low light situations used to mean that a tripod was essential for sharpness in even reasonably quick exposures, but even that truth is falling by the wayside, as sensors allow for lower noise at ever-higher ISO levels. The handheld shot is now more convenient and reliable than ever, with only modest investments in gear and/or practice to yield suitable results. This means that, outside of very formalized studio settings, you may now be able to leave both flash and pod in the closet in more and more cases.
So let’s pursue the ideal: a low-light image, shot handheld, with the lowest possible ISO, achieved without flash or tripod. First, your glass needs to be fast, something that can’t be said for the basic kit lenses that are packaged with most DSLRs. A lens like a kit 18-55mm that only opens in the f/3.5 range can’t compete with prime lenses such as a 35 or 50mm of f/1.8 or faster. The extra several stops can render many more handheld shots feasible, and so investing in an affordable prime (single focal length) is money well spent.
The other, and far more decisive factors in this handheld quest, since you’ll be dealing in slower exposure times, are the purely physical moves involved in bracing your camera. Whether it’s a firm stance, a solid grip, a handy resting place like a shelf, or a combination of all three, you have to practice….a lot…in minimizing camera shake. Everyone’s technique for this will vary, and the web is rich in written or video tutorials from which to choose. The point is, it’s possible to learn how to do it.
The two shots shown here are both shot wide open, at F/1.8, at a rock-bottom ISO value of 100 and available light only (the room was actually further darkened for purposes of this test). And while you can certainly see a clear contrast in sharpness between the first and second shot, they are handheld at 1/5th of a second and 1 full second respectively and are both usable shots (seen here straight out of the camera). Moreover, even shooting at, say, 1/10th of a second or faster, the picture could still be done with very low ISO and no flash, no tripod. And that buys you ease, mobility and speed. Travel light, shoot more, and in more places.
Again, I am most definitely not anti-flash. I just think that the fluidity of today’s gear, along with a few hours of practice, can simplify your shooting, giving you more concentration on the why of a picture rather than the how of getting it done.
A TRIP TO THE SUPERMARKET
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE’VE ALL DONE IT: we’re sent to the grocery store for bread and milk, and come back with a six-pack of beef jerky, a gallon tub of guacamole, and a family-sized box of Trix. Sometimes, lost in the sublime and seductive specials inside the store, we even come home without the bread and milk. But, hey, beef jerky.
That’s what happens on some photographic shoots.
The sequence is familiar. You pick the target. You pack the appropriate gear. You may also have to book passage or pay for admission to something. You research the forecast. You even visualize the expected layout or sequence of shots. And then comes the day itself, a day upon which, for whatever reason, the pictures won’t come. A day upon which you can’t buy a usable image for love or money. To further torture my original metaphor, the grocery store is fresh out of bread and milk.
But, fear not: as a photographer, you are nothing if not resilient. Like a lost dad determined to find something of use somewhere in the supermarket, you go looking for deals. The pictorial orphans. The what-the-hell or go-for broke shots. Wild clicks as you’re slinking back to the parking lot. Cripes, at this point, you’re reduced to looking for cute dogs. But will these desperate moves yield pictorial gold?
No guarantees. Fate doesn’t dole out consolation prizes. However, the primal panic that results from seeing your Plan “A” go down in flames can make you more open to experimentation, less fastidious about getting the perfect frame. That, in turn, may lead to embracing the accidental over the intentional……of moving your emphasis from the conceptual (your original plan) to the perceptual (flashes of ideas that occur once your mind is open).
The shot seen here, if I’m honest, is neither good nor bad. It was merely workable at the end of a day on which absolutely nothing else was. I liked what the light was ( and wasn’t) doing in the moment, and the girl gave me a small anchor for the viewer’s eye, albeit a small one. Other than that, I had no overarching concept for the picture. An empty grocery cart made me reach for the beef jerky.
Photographs begin with intention, certainly. But we often kid ourselves about what a huge part randomness plays in what happens between Think and Click. We’d love to assume we’re in charge of our process. But let’s also learn to love the disrupters, the detours, and the dreams gone amiss.
TABLE FOR ONE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE GREAT IRONIC CLICHE OF CITIES is how they smash millions of people together while also keeping them completely isolated from each other, forcing the seeming intersections of lives that, below the surface, are still tragically alienated. Photography, coming of age as it did at roughly the same time as the global rise of cities, became accustomed, early on, with showing both the mad crush and the killing melancholy of these strange streets. We take group shots within which, hidden in plain sight, linger poignant solo portraits. The thrill of learning to speak both messages with a camera in one instant is why we do this thing.
Gray days, especially the fat batch of them I recently harvested in Manhattan, do half of my street photographer’s job for me, deepening colors and shadows in what can quickly become an experiment in underexposure, a lab which, in turn, profoundly alters mood. Things that were somber to begin with become absolutely leaden, with feelings running to extremes on the merest of subjects and forcing every impression through a muted filter. It’s what makes it out the back end of that filter that determines what kind of picture I’ll get.
The two diners in this scene are an arbitrary interpretation…..a judgement call that, on a bright day, I might have made completely differently. They are in parallel arrangement, so they both are looking off to the right, never across at each other. Does this make them lonely, or merely alone? The fact that there is one man and one woman in the composition doesn’t necessarily denote desperate or disconnected lives, but isn’t there at least a slight temptation for the viewer to read the image that way? And then there is our habit of seeing this kind of color palette as moody, sad, contemplative. The limited amount of light in the frame, as much as any other element, “tells” us what to feel about the entire scene. Or does it?
Now, of course, if you were to pack a roomful of other photogs into the same room alongside me to shoot the same image under the exact same conditions, you would very likely get a wider variety of readings. One such reading might suggest that both of these people were thoroughly enjoying a pleasant, quiet lunch, part of a lifelong pattern of contented fulfillment. Or not.
Cities are composed of millions of eyes backed by many more millions of inherited viewpoints on what defines big words like lonely, isolated, sad, thoughtful, and so on. But all of us, regardless of approach, are taking the strange city yin/yang of get closer/go away and trying to extract our own meaning from it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
NO ONE EVER INTENTIONALLY DESIGNS SOMETHING TO BE UGLY. There has never been an artist’s or architect’s rendering that shows a project, from a city park to a shopping mall, as anything but ideal. Drawings created to excite investors and planners are consistently festooned with bright, broad sidewalks, strolling families (with their dogs), and bowers of flowers. When you see a sign saying, “coming soon on this site”, it’s always a sunny day.
Of course, once the dedication ribbon is cut, reality intervenes. Neighborhoods rise and fall. Things wear out. The cool things that were to be built during “phase two” get un-funded. The dream of the possible becomes the dreariness of the actual. And photographers are there to measure the distance between those extremes.
Sadly, merely making images of what has gone wrong in modern life is almost a default for many shooters, and their predictably bleak work reflects that. Creating pictures of decay or failure is certainly easy, almost a cynical cop-out, as if seeing the ugliness in things is somehow more honest, more “authentic”. I can understand taking that bait. I have taken that bait. But I think photographers need to struggle to confer grace on things as well, to try to show how things might have worked out. Yes, there’s a lot of drama to be had in documenting what went wrong. But, at one point in the process, before the beginnings of things, people invested faith in what they were creating, a faith that said that things would be generally better Once This Thing Is Completed. Pictorially, trying to portray potential, especially wasted potential, is far tricker.
As to the image shown here, I’d like to say it was the result of some marvelous act of planning, but the fact is, the entire scene, bathed in the deep golds of dusk, was seen and seized in an instant. I remember being struck by the feeling that this kind of light was so miraculous that it could confer nobility on even a car wash in a shopworn neighborhood, and that a momentary break in the clouds had given the reds and yellows the hyper-saturated look of an old, slow film stock like Kodachrome. Again, all these impressions registered inside a few seconds, and I went for it. The result reminded me that, once, someone thought this car wash would at least be neat, or efficient, or attractive. Sometimes that dream is totally submerged in the crust of What Happened Later. But I feel compelled to search for it anyway, to confer grace on what the dreamers saw. After all, under the skin, we’re all in the same game.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I’M A HUGE FAN OF THE EARLIEST VERSION of the classic Technicolor film process, the so-called “two-strip” technique from the 1920’s, which simultaneously exposed two separate frames of black and white film of a single subject, one strip through a green filter, the other through a red one. Combined in the lab, the composite image simulated most of the colors of nature that contained either red or green, but absent the third layer of blue/cyan which would be added in the more advanced three-strip Technicolor process, the one which became the industry standard by the early ’30’s. Two-strip features like Mystery Of The Wax Museum or The King Of Jazz are a kind of object lesson for photographers in learning to work with narrow color palettes. The message: do the most with what you’ve got.
Every shooter encounters situations, most of them dictated by changes in available light, which severely limit the full spectrum of reproducible color. We might eagerly embrace the warmth of the two daily “golden hours” that bathe most bright hues in gold. We might bemoan cloudy days, which can drain everything of saturation or contrast. We might have to make adjustments when shade makes our cameras read light at the wrong color temperature, giving our images “the blues”. Whatever the challenge, photographers make myriad choices about color in a single minute, and, unlike the early technicians at Technicolor, they don’t necessarily see a faithful rendering of “reality” as Job One. How “natural” do we want to present color, and how do we define that word, anyway? Is color a determinant of comfort, tension, revelation, drama? Do we intentionally choose hues that either conceal or reveal?
Deep sunset, as seen in the above image, is one situation in which nature itself narrows the color palette. All yellows and reds tend to morph into orange. All blacks, browns and grays migrate to blues. Middle tones head for the hills. Contrast jumps off the meter. Subtlety takes a vacation. Suddenly, as in the case of the old two-strip Technicolor, you’re forcing very few colors to do the work of many….to deliver a version of the world rather than a faithful reproduction of it.
Color processes since the beginning of photography have embraced the idea that you could either reflect reality or, in the pursuit of a great picture, bend it a little.
Or more than a little.
Or a hell of a lot more.
COMFORT FOOD (AND LIGHT)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SINGLE–SOURCE LIGHT IS ALMOST ALWAYS USED, IN PHOTOGRAPHY, with the aim of calling attention to something other than itself. Typically the light’s origination point is hidden or removed from the final composition, entering from outside the frame via a side window or a top-down studio lamp, modeling or dimensionalizing an object, creating the illusion that all the light in the room just happened organically.
And that’s pretty much as it should be. You usually don’t use the tools of a craft to say, in effect, look at the way these cool tools helped me play a trick on you. As photographers we don’t like to be caught in the act of fooling, and so there are many images where the single source light is seen just in its effect, not as a cause.
Many, but not all. Sometimes the light actually needs to be part of the story, as shown here.
Most places of business naturally react to the daily dying of exterior light by turning on their interior lamps. Sun goes down, lights go up. But occasionally, as in this wondrous and quirky little bakery cafe in Morningside Heights in Manhattan, the comfort food was accompanied by what could easily be termed comfort light. The lights inside the pastry case, at least during this particular evening, were allowed to serve as the only illumination for the entire inside of the store, lending the customers around the counter the warm intimacy of a shared fireplace.
The moment filled me with longing for a world whose labors and leisure were once defined solely by the parameters of day or night, mitigated only by the occasional torch or oil lamp. And so, in this special case (and in many more you can no doubt name from your own experiences), the source of the image’s light really is part of the narrative, and thus deserves its place at center stage.
ACROSS THE MERIDIAN
By MICHAEL PERKINS
TIME, BEING A HUMAN CONSTRUCT (AND ESSENTIALLY AN ILLUSION) is one of those handy mind tricks we use to convince ourselves that we’re in charge. That we know how to plan, that we can bend events to our will, plot them out on a strategic map. Catch them in our camera boxes. It’s pure nonsense of course, just like stipulating that we all believe that green pieces of paper with dead presidents on them are of value. But as long as we’re all in on the joke, then…what?
Photographers are all about time, of course. Stealing it, freezing it, even trying to render it irrelevant. With a camera in hand, we dare to declare that time is what we say it is. Or isn’t. And on this day, billions of images will have been shot by breakfast in an effort to mark the act of crossing the meridian, the passing of one year into another (or, in this case, one decade into another). We feel some kind of biological urge to record what it was like/will be like. Snap. Here we are at the stroke of midnight, when one thing became another. Can you tell the difference? Can you show the difference in a frame? Time’s status as the Great Hoax doesn’t diminish its power. And so we click, and play.
One image, two years. A time exposure begun in the dying seconds of 2019 and ending in the first moments of 2020.
What you see here is the attempt to imprison two years within a single image. I was struck, New Year’s Eve, by the contrast between my party-prone neighbors (they of the brightly lit trees to the left) and my own party-resistant nature (the quiet patio to the right), so much so that I thought the comparison of the two worlds was worth a picture. I set up the camera from my bedroom window and ran a few tests as the last hours of 2019 drained away, then tripped my remote timer in the final seconds of that dying year, so that the 43-second exposure would originate in one year and end in the next. Nothing much would change over the taking of the image, but I would know that I had crammed two years into one frame. Like time itself, a trick, an illusion. Turns out, that one year looks quite like another, with less to distinguish them than there is to distinguish my neighbor’s busy yard from my still one. There wasn’t so much as a fleeting firecracker light trail to betray the secret that I had taken a picture of time travel. Just the strange fable in my head. Just as it’s always been.
Happy New Year. Happy Wise Year. Happy Humble Year. Happy Whatever You Need It To Be Year. I hope we can tell a difference between the time we think we’ve lost and the time we think we have.
And here, again, is to the sweet and mad miracle of imprisoning magic in a box.
January 1, 2020 | Categories: Available Light, Commentary, Conception, Time Exposures | Tags: Long exposures, night photography | Leave a comment