By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT WAS PRETTY COMMON, just a few years ago, to find a county fair or amusement park that boasted its own “old-timey” photo booth, a space where families could don historic costumes and pose for a simulated sepia daguerreotype. It was the start of a trend that continues to the digital age, in which the bulky, balky technology of Photography Eras Past becomes romanticized as an effect to be applied to contemporary images. Or, to put it in practical terms, everything old is new again….in an app.
Faking the past via digital doctoring can provide a unique aspect to a newly-taken snap, or it can just produce what I call the “that’s cool” effect, which masks the general purpose of the original and drowns it in gimmicky goop. But the temptation to tweak is strong: apps are cheap (or free) and it takes mere minutes to determine if a given one will add anything to your work beyond mere novelty. One such example is the wide selection of faux tintype emulators available at a click.
The tintype (which was actually exposed on iron plates coated with dried collodion) was never as sharp as its predecessor, the glass-plate daguerreotype, but it was so simple to take and process by comparison that it effectively liberated the camera from the studio, sending field photographers in tented wagons out across the country to shoot every aspect of American life, including, notably, the battles of the Civil War. Eventually paper positives and celluloid film spelled the technology’s doom, but it’s uneven textures and tones continue to evoke a vanished world.
I very seldom use tintype apps after I’ve taken a shot. It seems as if I’m admitting that the image somehow wasn’t enough, that it needed “help” of some kind. I prefer to take pictures from within the app itself, allowing it to use my phone’s camera. The idea is to conceive of the picture beforehand as benefitting from the tintype effect, to pair its “look” with its intention. The tonal range and uneven detail of the tintype can be thought of as another kind of abstraction, and your choice of narrative need not be limited to picturing Uncle Fred as Buffalo Bill. As with so many apps, actual practice can make the difference between a tool and a toy.
THE FIRST TIME I READ CHASE JARVIS‘ The Best Camera Is The One That’s With You was some six years after its 2010 publication date, a short time in years, but a century in the development of mobile camera technology. After dashing through what was one of the first books ever compiled solely of phone camera images, I was furious at myself for investing, albeit in a Half Price Books store, in what I first saw as a pile of technically inferior, self-indulgent mush. The images were soft, hyper-saturated, low-contrast shots of, well, anything that caught Jarvis’ fancy as he jetted around the planet doing what I thought of as his “real” work. Shot in those heady first days of iPhone novelty at a mere two megapixels per frame, TBCITOTWY seemed a work of complete impulse. The pictures had no plan, no premeditation.
It took several days for me to realize that Chase wasn’t shooting “like a pro”. He was shooting like an artist.
In the post just previous to this one I had explained that it was the new kind of photographer, borne of the cell phone era, that had influenced me in learning to let go of a few, if not all formalist rules in my own work. Chase Jarvis had no way of knowing, nine years ago, that mobile cameras would re-introduce a kind of instinctual shooting into the mainstream, a sudden, relaxed see-it-shoot-it attitude based on desire and not calculation. The first cel cameras were certainly limited, lo-fi toys, but they embodied the same what-the-hell spirit that had typified old Polaroid users and, in the digital realm, the back-to-film Lomography hipsters with their plastic light-leaking Soviet-era snap cams. Cels had reignited the desire to take a chance on a picture, to indulge a whim. If the result was great art, cool. If instead you got a weird mess, even cooler.
This was all made possible by being absolutely comfortable with a camera that was good enough to at least give you something every time. The designers put a little computer in everyone’s hand that almost never failed completely. This was faster than film, and your absolute clunkers could be vaporized and tried again immediately. This same freedom had already come to digital cameras in general, but the sheer gobsmacking convenience of making pretty good pictures with almost no forethought or planning was beyond revolutionary. As with every other technical advance in the history of photography, it was democratically empowering.
The cameras are better now. So very much better, in fact, that they have freed people up even more to shoot a lot, enjoy it a lot, and speed up their learning curves. So much better that I can knock off a shot like the one seen here in less time than it would have taken to spool film into my camera just a generation ago. “I feel more free with (this) little camera than I have with any other”, wrote Chase Jarvis in the introduction to The Best Camera. “I somehow recovered an innocence I’d lost. I was able to see the world again for what it is: a beautiful, funny, sad, honest, simple, bizarre, and honest place”. I am still not ready to completely toss my photographic rule book, but the revolution in the world’s way of seeing has swept a part of me up, and my work reflects that. I love my own journey, but I am happy to sneak a peek at everyone else’s, too. To be surprised, in any art, at any age, is a blessing.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ENVY, WHILE A COMPLETELY UNDERSTANDABLE HUMAN EMOTION, has only occasionally helped me advance as a photographer. Eating one’s heart out over someone else’s talent is, at best, a kind of sweet misery, but there are a few instances in which it’s almost a pleasure to look upon another person’s work and know that you’ll never approach that level of mastery.
For me, that juicy jealousy has always been reserved for the legendary output of the Farm Security Administration, the New Deal program charged with chronicling the nationwide impact of the Great Depression of the 1930’s, the idea being that you couldn’t marshall public action against a problem people couldn’t see. The titanic FSA archive, containing more than 175,000 negatives, capitalized on the emerging 35mm film format and the country’s then-ubiquitous photo news magazines to produce images which were both objective reportage and so-called “street” photography. There is simply no comparable project in the history of the medium.
So, again, my own work, as previously confessed, is a admixture of envy and admiration. I can never take a crack at creating a narrative for the Dust Bowl or the great Oakie migration, but I can create an “homage” to those who did. You know how this works. When you get caught aping someone else’s technique, that’s “theft”. When you out yourself for doing the very same thing, it’s an “homage”. Soooooo…
The master shot of the above image was taken out the window of an Amtrak train winding its way between Portland and Eugene, Oregon, about ten days ago. I was struck by the visual isolation of the farm structures and the profound emptiness of the surrounding fields. The antique feel and texture of the finished product was supplied by the Hipstamatic app, the whole deal created completely in-camera on an iPhone, which is, to our era, what the Leica was to the FSA’s journeyman shooters….that is, the tool at hand. I can’t honestly chronicle the events of that time…..but I can render an echo of their feeling.
Some seventy-five years have passed since the Roosevelt administration sent a small army of shutterbugs across the country to live among those whose lives had been shattered by the Crash, to record what they were trying to do to restore equilibrium to a world that had run into a ditch. I will never be able to do that exact work. Still, I hope I can bring rigor to the challenges that my own time have placed before me. Sometimes, the two eras seem uncomfortably close, as if some very old dust were blowing up into a new storm…..
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS, LIKE ALL OTHER UPRIGHT BIPEDS, LOVE PRAISE. None of us are so jaded that we don’t like to get a gold star for an image or an idea; after all, that’s why we do this. However, as borne out by the simplest Google research, there is one sentence, which, although intended as a compliment, will send the average photographer into a seething simmer. You’ve heard it. Maybe you’ve even said it.
Repeat it with me:
Gee, your pictures are so good. You must have a really great camera.
Sadly, this sentence is intended as a thumbs-up, a certification that “ya done good”. However, it unfortunately lands on the ear sounding like, “Lucky you. Despite your basic, hapless ineptitude, the magical machine in your fist created art that was so wonderful, not even a clod like you could prevent it from happening.Congrats!”
When I am told that my pictures are good because I have “a really good camera”, part of me wants to extend the idea of tools=talent to other fields of endeavor, as in:
“Thanks. I can hardly wait to buy a $3,000 oven so I can become a master chef.”
“Thanks, I’m eager to get some $200 brushes so I can paint a masterpiece.”
“Thanks. I’m planning to tie a blanket around my neck and recite ‘I’m Batman’ several thousand times so I can be a crimefighter….”
Photography isn’t about tools. It’s about patience, perseverance, vision, flexibility, humility, objectivity, subjectivity, and, most importantly, putting in more hours than the next guy. It’s about exercising your eye as you would any muscle that you’ve like to tone and strengthen. It’s about sitting 24 hours in a duck blind, hanging by your heels from a helicopter, avoiding incoming gunfire, charming grumpy children, and learning to hate things in your own work that, just yesterday, you believed was your “A” stuff.
If equipment were all, then everyone with a Steinway would be Glenn Gould and everyone with a Les Paul Gibson would be, well, Les Paul. But we know that there is no success guarantee that comes with a purchase warranty. Many cameras are great, but they won’t wake you up at 4am to flush out a green-tailed towhee or climb a mountain to help you snag a breathtaking sunrise. Tools are not talent. And the sooner we learn that, the less we’ll start thinking our work will start to shine with the next new shiny thing we buy, and teach ourselves to make better pictures with what we own and shoot right here, right now.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE CELL PHONE CAMERA’S IMPACT ON PHOTOGRAPHY HAS BEEN SO SUDDEN AND FAR-REACHING that its full impact has yet to be fully measured. Within a decade, the act of making a picture has been democratized to a greater degree than at any other time in the history of the medium. It’s as if, overnight, everyone was given the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Goodbye, Superman, hello, Everyman. The Kodak Brownie’s introduction prior to 1900 gave the average human his first camera. The cell phone is like the Brownie on steroids and four shots of Red Bull.
It’s more than just giving millions of people the ability to take a photo. That part had been done before, dozens of times. However, no other camera before the cell has also obliterated the number one obstacle to picture-making on this scale: cost. The cost of film. The cost of marketing and sharing one’s work quickly, and with uniform quality. The cost of artistry, with support apps allowing people to directly translate their vision into a finished product without investing in gear that, just a few years ago, priced most people out of the creative end of the market.
Most significantly, there is the cost saved in time. Time learning a technique. Time speeding past the birth pains of your creative energy. you know, those darn first 10,000 hours of bad pictures that used to take years of endurance and patience. The learning curve for photography, once a gradually arching line, is now a dramatic, vertical jump into the stratosphere.
These insane leaps in convenience and, for the most part, real technical improvement occur across all digital media, but, in the cel phone, their impact is spread across billions, not mere millions, of users. Simulate a particular film’s appearance? Done. Do high-quality macro or fisheye without a dedicated lens running into the hundreds? Yeah, we can do that. Double-exposures, selective focus, miniature effects, pinhole exposures, even remote auxiliary lighting? Go fish. It’s all there.
And when cells raise the ante, traditional cameras have to up their game just to survive. The shot at the top of this page comes from a pair of Lensbaby macro converters up front of the company’s Sweet 35 optic, a shot that would only have come, a few years ago, from a dedicated macro lens costing upwards of $500. Lensbaby’s version? $49.95. And now, with less than a decade in the effects lens biz for DSLRs, Lensbaby makes macro, fisheye and other effect lenses for cells. A rising tide raises all boats.
I could make a list of the areas where the optics and outputs of cell phones are still behind conventional camera optics, but if this post is ever read more than a year past its publication, the future will make a liar out of me. Besides, that would put me on the same side as the carpers who still claim that film is better, more human, or “warm”, as the vinyl LP hipsters like to say. Your horse is nice, but it can’t outrun my Model T.
Part of photography’s appeal since day one has been the knowledge that, whatever era you live in, it’s a sure bet that some geek is slaving away in a lab somewhere, trying to make your sleek, easy, “latest thing” seem slow, clunky and over with. We’re never done. Which means that we’re always just beginning.
A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera. —Dorothea Lange
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS A REAL DISCONNECT BETWEEN THE “FIRST CAMERAS” OF A GENERATION AGO and those of people just entering the art of photography today. Of course, individual experiences vary, but, in general, people born between 1950 and 1980 first snapped with devices that were decidedly limited as compared to the nearly limitless abilities of even basic gear today. And that creates a similar gap, across the eras, between what skills are native to one group versus the other.
To take one example, if your first camera, decades ago, was a simple box Brownie, the making of your pictures was pretty hamstrung. You had to purposefully labor to compensate for what your gear wouldn’t do. A deliberate plan had to be followed for every shot, since you couldn’t count on the camera to allow for, or correct, your mistakes. With a device that came hardwired with a single aperture, a shutter button, and not much else, you had to be mindful of a whole array of factors that could result in absolute failure. The idea of artistic “freedom” was sought first in knowledge, then, much later, in better equipment.
But if, on the other hand, you begin your photographic development with a camera that, in the present era, is almost miraculously flexible and responsive, freedom is a given. In a sense, it’s also a restraint of a different kind. That is, with bad gear, you’re a hero if you can wring any little bit of magic out of the process. But with equipment that can almost obey your every command, the old “I left the lens cap on”-type excuses are gone, along with any other reason you may offer for not getting at least average results. Thus the under-equipped and the over-equipped have two different missions: one must deliver despite his camera, while the other strives to deliver despite himself.
The entire gist of The Normal Eye is that I believe that even remarkable cameras (and the world is flooded with them) will betray the unseeing eye that mans them. Likewise, the trained eye will create miracles with anything handy. Our thrust here at TNE is toward teaching yourself the complete basics of photography as if you were actually constrained by limited equipment. At the point at which you’ve fully mastered the art of being better than your camera, then, and only then, is it time to get a new camera. Then learn to out-run that one, and so on.
The promise made by cameras today is the same promise that’s always been made by ever-advancing technology, that of wonderful results with minimum effort. It’s the photo equivalent of “eat whatever you want and still lose weight”. But it’s a false promise; photography only becomes art when we ask things of ourselves that our cameras cannot provide by themselves. Anything else is learning to accommodate mediocrity, a world of “pretty good”.
Which, inevitably, is never really good enough.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MY WIFE AND I HAVE REACHED A REASONABLE DIVISION OF LABOR as regards road trips, with her taking on the nation’s freeways like an original cast member of The Road Warrior and me decoding various navigational vectors, from AAA maps to iPhones, as well as uber-producing the in-car tune mix. Everybody to their strengths and all that. This arrangement also frees me up to pursue the mythical goal of Immortal Photograph I Shot Out A Car Window, which will also be the title of my Pulitzer Prize acceptance speech.
Any day now.
Most of these potential world-beater images have been attempted through the front windshield, where it is at least a little easier to control blur, even glass reflection. Additionally, the majority of them, more and more, are done on mobile phones, which is not the greatest for resolution, but gives you that nice exaggeration on dimensions and depth that comes with a default wide-angle lens, which, in some cases, shoots broader vistas than even the kit lens on your “real” camera.
If you find yourself doing the same thing, you have no doubt noticed that you must get really, really close to your subject before even mountains look like molehills, as the lens dramatically stretches the front-to-back distances. You might also practice a bit to avoid having 10,000 shots that feature your dashboard and that somewhat embarassing Deadhead sticker you slapped on the windshield in 1985.
So, to recap: Shoot looking forward. Use a mobile for that nice cheap arty widescreen look. Frame so your dash-mounted hula girl is not included in your vistas (okay, she does set off that volcano nicely..). And wait until you’re almost on top of (or directly underneath) the object of your affection.
And keep an ear out for important travel inquries from your partner, such as: “are you gonna play this entire Smiths CD?”
Sorry, my dear. Joan Baez coming right up.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS A GLOBAL RACE, ACCELERATING RAPIDLY SINCE THE DAWN OF THE DIGITAL AGE, toward better, faster image sensors in cameras great and small, as we wage the eternal photographic battle against the limits of light. It’s one more reason why this is the best time in the medium’s history to be making pictures.
It’s hard to express what a huge game-changer this is. Film-based photography advanced the science of gathering light in slow fits and starts for more than a century, with even some of the most popular consumer films rated at very slow speeds (Kodachrome) or, if faster, extraordinarily high grain (Tri-X). Suddenly, the world’s shadowy interiors, from stadiums to basements, give up their secrets to even bargain-priced cameras as ISO ratings for sensors climb and noise/grain abatement gets better and better.
The above image, taken inside the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, would have, in film terms, required either a full-open aperture (making a consistent depth of field from front to back tricky), a slow exposure (hard to go handheld when you’re on a tour) or a film rated at 400 or above. Plus luck.
By contrast, in digital, it’s a casual snap. The f/5.6 aperture keeps things sharp from front to back, and the ISO rating of 250 results in noise that’s so low that it’s visually negligible. The statue of television pioneer Philo Farnsworth is dark bronze, and so a little re-contrasting of the image was needed in post-editing to lighten up the deeper details, but again, the noise is so low that it’s really only visible in color. As it happens, I actually like the contrast between the dark statue and the bright room better in monochrome anyway, so everyone wins.
The message here is: push your camera. Given today’s technology, it will give you some amazing things, and the better you understand it the more magic it will produce. We are just on the cusp of a time when we can effectively stow the flash in the closet except in very narrow situations and capture stuff we only used to dream about. Get out there and start swinging for the fences.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
QUICK, DO YOU KNOW WHO MADE THE HAMMER IN YOUR KITCHEN DRAWER? Let’s assume that it’s not a Sears Craftsman, but something you bought on the spot when you just needed, like, a hammer. Yeah, I’ll wait.
Follow-up question: does your off-brand Thor-wacker drive nails any less efficiently than a Sears? Or is it really all in the wrist?
In photography, sometimes tools is just tools. Cellphone apps comprise one of the the most glutted product markets ever, and, while some products do rise to the top and/or international prominence, there are gobs of different players out there to help us solve the same old problems, i.e., composition, exposure, color range, special effects. Those are the basics, and you need not be loyal to any predominant type-A app when, by the time I type the rest of this sentence, forty more guys will have served up their own solution for the exact same need. Go with what works. Add, subtract, adopt, dump, delete, and adore as needed.
Most cel camera apps, toolwise, are closer to a Swiss Army knife than a scalpel, blunt instruments that either apply an effect all-on or all-off. Single click, caveman-level stuff. Still, even the casual cel photog will pack a few of them along to do fundamental fixes on the go, and I recently noticed that I had acquired a decent, basic utility belt of bat-remedies, including, in no particular order:
Negative Me. Just what it says. Converts positive images to negative. Not something you’ll use a lot, but..
Simple DOF. A quick calculator that measures near, far and infinite sharpness based on distance, aperture and lens.
Fused. Instant double exposures, with about ten different blending formulas.
Soft Focus. Sliders for sharpness, brightness, color saturation. Instant glamor for portraits.
Timer Cam. Get in the photo.
Instants. Genuine fake Polaroid borders around your landscape or square images. Because we can’t give up our hipster groove.
AltPhoto. Best simulations of older classic film stocks from Kodachrome to Tri-X, as well as red filter, toy camera and antique effects.
Tilt-Shift Focus. Narrow the sharp areas in your images from a pinpoint to a basketball.
Flickr. Direct link to the mother ship
Pic Stitch. Framing templates for collages of two or more images. Drag and drop simplicity.
Use of these gimcracks ranges from the (yawn) occasional to the (yes!) essential, and your mileage may vary. Thing is, it’s truly a buyer’s (and user’s) market out there. Gather your own gold and click away.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS LOVE TO BICKER ENDLESSLY ABOUT WHICH IS THE BEST ROAD TO TRAVEL en route to the making of a picture. I mean they flat-out love it. Here we are entering the third century of a global art that has amply demonstrated that vision, not hardware, is the determinant of excellence, and we are still splitting into warring factions on which camera does this, or which lens or process does that. It’s discouraging because it is wasteful. Put in another context, it’s like arguing whether your marinara won first prize because you stirred it with a spoon instead of a fork.
This ongoing us/them battle over which is the “purer” approach to photography is presently centered on traditional cameras versus mobile devices. Each side calls its star witnesses to testify on a variety of qualifying or disqualifying factors, as if anything matters but the pictures. Can I play that game? Sure, and I’d be lying through my teeth if I said that I had never hurled a bomb or two toward both sides in the skirmish. But when I do that, I’m only serving my own ego….not photography.
I make a distinction between cel phone and conventional cameras based simply on what I want to do in the moment, but such distinctions are never recommended as a universal yardstick. Very generally speaking, if I want the widest number of creative choices before the picture is made, I prefer a DSLR. If I can safely trust my instinct for the greatest part of the picture, adding creative tweaks after the shutter clicks, I am comfortable with a cel. Simple as that. I have made very satisfying images with both kinds of cameras, but my results are purely my own. And that’s really as much as any of us can swear to.
The manufacturers of both kinds of cameras know that different people approach picture-making with priorities, and that’s why they make cameras that have different approaches. Why should this be surprising? Is a Cadillac a better car than a Fiat? Who says so and why? Don’t both accomplish the same baseline task of propelling you from point A to point B? Then they’re, um, cars.
Many pro photographers worship gear the way high priests dig incense and robes, so it’s no wonder that newbies catch the same fever. Looking at their worst pictures, they hate on their gear instead of questioning how they see. You’ve heard the if-only mantras. Maybe you’re mumbled them yourself. If only I had the Big Mama 3000 lens. If only I had a Lightning Bolt BX3 body with a Zeiss diamond cutter attachment! Boy, howdy, then you’d see some pictures. Yeah, well, bull hockey. Develop your eye and your pictures will come out better, whatever kind of camera they come out of. Choose to put yourself on an eternally accelerating learning curve. You’re the real camera, anyway.
Anything else is just a spoon or fork. Stir the pot with what’s at hand and start cooking.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CHILDREN THINK THAT HAPPINESS RESIDES IN ALWAYS BEING TOLD “YES”. Of course anyone who has ever (a) been a child or (b) had to deal with one knows that this is actually the worst of strategies. Even without being Tiger Moms, we can all pretty much agree that there are many times when telling a kid “NO” will improve, perhaps even save, his life. Negative responses carry important information. They can be guidelines. Most importantly, they convey that there are limits, consequences.
“NO” also helps you be a better photographer.
In the ’60’s, one of the most basic cameras ever sold, the teen-marketed Polaroid Swinger, had a shutter that you pinched to check if you had enough light to make a picture. If the word “YES” appeared in the viewfinder, you were solid. “NO”, given the simplicity of the gadget, meant, sorry, point this thing somewhere toward, you know, actual light. Easy. Unmistakable. Take the picture with a “NO”, and it’s on you.
DSLR’s still flash a similar warning. With Nikon it’s “subject is too dark”. But the camera isn’t a mean parent that won’t let you choose ice cream over asparagus. It’s being a good parent that’s trying to give you a happy outcome. By contrast, smartphone cameras are bad parents. They never tell you “no”. If anything, their attitude is, point anywhere you like, anytime you like, darling. Mommy will still make a picture for you. That’s because the emphasis of design and use for smartphones is: make it simple, give the customer some kind of result, no matter what. You push the button, sweetheart, and we’ll worry about all that icky science stuff and give you a picture (image at left).
The default function of smartphone cameras is wondrous. You get a picture, every damn time. Never a blank screen, never a “no”. But in low-light situations, to accomplish this, the camera has to jack up the ISO to such a ridiculous degree that noise goes nuclear and detail goes buh-bye. The device has been engineered to make you happy over everything else, and its marketers have determined that you’d rather have a technically flawed picture than no picture, so that’s the mission. And that guarantees that your photography will linger in Average-land pretty much forever.
With iPhones, you have no override. You have no thumbs-up-thumbs-down decision. You have, actually, no input at all except your choice of subject and composing style. Now, you may think that this “frees” you, with the camera “getting out of your way”, and all, but it really means that, even if you have a better idea for making an image than your camera does, you cannot act upon it. Cameras that say “NO” are also saying, “but if you try something else, you will get to “YES” (image at top). Cameras that only say “YES” are really saying, “I know best. Leave it to me.”
Which of course, is something you heard all the time, years ago.
When you were a child.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ANYONE WHO REGULARLY VISITS THESE PAGES already knows that I advocate of doing as much of your photography in as personal and direct a way as possible. While I am completely astonished by the number of convenience items and automatic settings offered to the casual photographer in today’s cameras, I believe that many of these same features can also delay the process by which people take true hands-on control of their image-making. I regard anything that gets in between the shooter and the shutter as a potential distraction, even a drag on one’s evolution.
Tools are not technique. Here are two parallel truths of photography: (1) some people with every gizmo in the toy store take lousy pictures. (2) some people with no technical options whatsoever create pictures that stun the world.
From my view, you can either subscribe to the statement, “I can’t believe what this camera can do!” or to one which says, “I wonder what I can make my camera do for me!” The very controls built into cameras to make things convenient for newcomers are the first things that must be abandoned once you are ready to move beyond newcomer status. At some point, you learn that there is no way any camera can ever contain enough magic buttons to give you uniformly excellent results without your active participation. You simply cannot engineer a device that will always deliver perfection and perpetually protect you from your own human limits.
Innovators never innovate by surrounding themselves with the comfortable and the familiar. For photographers, that means making decisions with your pictures and living with the uneven results in the name of self-improvement. This is a challenge because manufacturers seductively argue that such decisions can be made painlessly by the camera acting alone. But guess what. If you don’t actively care about your photos, no one else will either. There may not be anything technically wrong with your camera’s “choices”. But they are not your choices, and eventually, you will want more. The structure that at first made you feel safe will, in time, start to feel more like a cage.
Tools are not technique.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
A RECENT PIECE BY TIMOTHY EGAN IN THE NEW YORK TIMES decried the latest innovation in Instagram etiquette, a device called a “selfie stick”. As the name implies, the stick is designed to hold one’s smartphone at a modest distance from its subject (me!) allowing oneself to be better framed against larger scenes, such as landscapes, local sights, etc. Egan mostly ranted against the additional invasion of public peace by armies of narcissistic simps who couldn’t be persuaded to merely be in the moment, unless they could also be in the picture. It struck him as a fresh assault on “real” experience, another example, as if we needed one, of our sadly self-absorbed age.
I agree with most of Egan’s epistle, but I think the real tragedy is that the selfie stick allows us to take more, more, more pictures, and reveal less, less, less of the people that we truly are. Selfies are more than emotionally stunted; most of them are also lies, or, more properly, masks. They are not “portraits” any more than they are steam shovels, as they merely replicate our favorite way of distancing ourselves from discovery… the patented camera smile. Frame after frame, day after endless day, the tselfie tsunami pushes any genuine depiction of humanity farther away, substituting toothpaste grins for authentic faces. Photographs can plumb the depths of the spirit, or they can put up an impenetrable barrier to its discovery, like the endless string of forced “I was here” shots that we now endure in every public place.
There’s a reason that the best portraits begin with not one lucky snap but dozens of “maybes”, as subject and photographer perform a kind of dance with each other, a slow wrestling match between artifice and exposition. Let’s be clear: just because it is easier,mechanically, to capture some kind of image of ourselves doesn’t mean we are getting any closer to the people we camouflage beneath carefully crafted personae. Indeed, if a person who acts as his own lawyer “has a fool for a client”, then most of us have a liar in charge of telling the truth about ourselves. Merely larding on additional technology (say, a stick on a selfie) just allows a larger portion of our false selves to fit into the picture, while the puzzle of who that person is, smirking into the camera, remains, all too often, an unresolved riddle.
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.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MY FATHER, AS A GRAPHIC ARTIST, USED TO WARN ME ABOUT COMMITTING MYSELF TOO EARLY. Not in terms of personal relationships, but as it applied to the act of drawing. “Always lay down all your potential pencil lines first”, he advised, “and then decide which ones you want to ink.” The message was that flexibility was as valuable a drafting tool as your 2H pencil or your Rapidograph pen, that delaying your final vision often helped you eliminate the earlier drafts and their respective weaknesses. I still value that advice, as it has a current corollary in the making of my photographs, largely as a consequence of the smartphone revolution.
Once phones began packing cameras that could actually deliver an image better than a Crayola shmear on a wet cocktail napkin, photographers who still chiefly relied on their traditional cameras suddenly had the luxury of a kind of optical “sketch pad”; that is, an easy way to pre-visualize a composition with a basic machine that you could use for a study, a dress rehearsal for a more precise re-imagining with a more advanced device. For many of us, the larger display area of a phone can often “make the sale” for a shot in a more compelling way than the smaller monitor on our grown-up camera, and, at the very least, we can judge how a photo will “play” less conspicuously than by lugging about more visually obvious hardware. It’s a fast way to gather a lot of preliminary ideas, especially in locales where you’re free to come back later for the serious shoot.
I especially like trolling through vintage stores, trying to find antique items that, in themselves, make for impromptu still-life subjects. Sometimes, to be honest, I go home with a pocket full of puckey. Sometimes, I decide to go back and do a more thorough shoot of the same subject. And sometimes, as in the above image, I decide that I can live with an original “sketch” with just a little post-tweaking. The exercise does one important thing, in that it reminds you to always be shooting, or at least always thinking about shooting.
I know people who have completely stopped even carrying DSLRs and other, more substantial gear in their everyday shooting, and, while I can’t quite get there yet, I get the idea on many levels. Hey, use a fine stylus, a sharp crayon, or a charred stick, dealer’s choice. Just get the sketch.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHEN I SAY THAT CURRENT DAY SHOOTERS ARE NOT HALF THE PHOTOGRAPHERS THAT THE OLD MASTERS WERE, that is not intended as an insult, but a simple bit of math. Given the fact that pioneers in the imaging game had to be equal parts artist and chemist, we only apply 50% of the effort these valiant visionaries did in negotiating the interactions of salts, albumens, bromides and other lab ingredients in an effort to even bring an image forth, much less do so with control. The technology that we employ today, and the speed and convenience with which we sling it around, should give us pause. The artistic mission of photography remains the same. It’s just that we don’t have to suffer as much for said art.
One of the marvelous processes from those years that still dazzles even the contemporary eye is the platinum print, so called because a platinum coating actually sits as a layer atop the developing papers, creating a print that contains a greater tonal range than any other monochrome process, including hints of gold, brown and red.Even better, what Kodachrome turned out to be for the archival permanence of color photography, platinum is for monochromatic images. It looks like a million bucks and will never degrade within the average person’s lifetime, or their great-grand kids’, neither. If you are over fifty and ever sat for a “serious” studio portrait, chances are you were immortalized in platinum. Literally speaking, you’re into metal, man.
Never for the timid (or the impecunious), platinum printing has largely faded (sorry) from the photographic scene along with the filmic science that birthed it, but, as with so many other “looks” in the digital era, things that were once merely processing are now content as well.
From where we stand, we can rifle through 200 years of processes and selectively decide to evoke an era or a mood a single picture at a time, just because we want to evoke a different time or place in our common cultural consciousness. We do this at our whim, unlike the people who actually devised the processes, who were stuck with them until they had (a) better knowledge of how to do things, (b) more money (c) both.
The digital apps that simulate the platinum print are gaining some popularity, as people apply instant alternate “mixes” of their cel phone shots, including up to a dozen different ways to envision a shot in monochrome. Those who appreciate the fine science in the original lab smarts required to create these looks in the film era claim that too little control resides in the user for a true one-to-one, film-t0-digital equivalency in any of these apps, but I have found that platinum creates a distinct, extra tool for monochrome fans, even if I experience guilt at not accruing the years of schooling it would have taken to do the process the “real way”. Anyway, above you will find a comparison between a basic mono rendering of an iPhone shot and a simulated platinum look, both cooked up in an app called AltPhoto. You may have a pref and you may not. That’s what makes horse races.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY DOESN’T TRULY MAKE ARTISTIC CHOICES “POSSIBLE”. Those decisions were always available in the medium, albeit at some cost of materials, time and work. You could always get nearly any effect from film, providing you were willing to invest the sweat in wringing it out of the tools at hand. Instead, digital processes make choices easier to act upon, and, for people who have made the transition from a lifetime of film-based analog shooting to digital, the leap to light speed on the trip from desire to result is especially mind-ripping.
This speed of implementation makes real-time differences when considering whether a shot will have its best impact in color or b&w. Even standard DSLRs and compacts have in-camera modes that allow you to immediately shoot and compare alternate versions of a subject, and, with the expanding universe of apps available to the smartphone shooter, you can instantly crank out half a dozen or more readings of the kind of color or the type of monochrome you’re looking for. This is especially important in black & white, where the range of tones and contrast values can make or break a picture.
By basically simulating the subtle changes that a film processor could have made in the gradations between the various intensities of either black or white, apps allow you to make incremental judgments of how the values in the image work or don’t work to produce the “statement” you’re looking for. Best thing about this is the best overall thing about digital: how quickly you can act on your impulse, then check, adjust, and act again. The above image lacked impact in the color original. The old workbench simply came off too warm and charming. I was looking for something that matched the grit and wear of the weathered wood, and I was able to shop for about three different grades of monochrome before settling on what you see here. Most days, this is a game of inches.
The sheer number of images that you will be able to salvage while the scene is still in front of you, and the light is still how you want it…. that’s an amazing freedom, and no generation of photographers before ours has enjoyed anything like it before.
The take-home of all this is that you should not only shoot a lot but shoot a lot of variations on what you choose to shoot. And remember, every shot that you “blow” is one shot closer to the higher average of excellent work that will only come after thousands of failures. Best to speed up the clock and get past them while you’re still young.
By MICHAEL PERKINS RANDOMNESS HAS STUBBORNLY ASSERTED ITSELF AS ONE OF THE MOST DECISIVE FORCES IN ALL OF PHOTOGRAPHY.One of the eternal struggles in our craft has been between our intense attempts to reduce the recording of light to a predictable science, and nature’s insistent pushback, allowing things that just happen to shape our results. I think most of our work as individuals is a constant wrestling between these two forces. One moment we fancy ourselves mastering all the variables that create images, and in the next we celebrate the wilding potential of just letting go, and actually celebrating the random effect. I find myself careening between the comfort of all the techniques I have accumulated over a lifetime, the so-called “guarantees” that I’ll capture what I’m looking for, and the giddy discovery that accidentals, or artifacts, somehow found themselves in my pictures despite my best efforts. The problem, for me, is learning to celebrate something wonderful that happened without my consciously causing it.
Phone cameras are forcing me to accept a little less control, since, even at their best, they can’t be managed in the way that standard DSLRs can. That leaves a certain number of results to chance, or, more exactly, to a display of the camera’s limits. One one hand, I’m grateful for the shots that I can “save” by using a mobile, since there will always be times that other types camera will be blocked, forbidden, or inconvenient. On the other hand, the results always make me wonder what else might have been possible if I had been completely at the helm in the making of the images. Some of the things I get “on the fly” with a phone camera are actually a bit magical, so that I actually love the things that are “wrong” with the picture. I’m sure this is part of the enjoyment that the lomography crowd derive from working with plastic toy cameras which create totally unpredictable results purely as a result of the camera’s shortcomings. In the above image, the garish register of nearly every color by my iPhone works well with the bizarre collision of dusk, neon, urban textures, even the overblown mystery of what’s going on inside the crazed little bodega shown here. The extreme wide-angle bias of the iPhone also has stretched things into exotic exaggerations of perspective, and the camera’s auto-boosted ISO produces a high level of noise. Does it all work? Yeah, pretty much. I don’t surrender control easily, but I’ve seen enough of the fortunate accidents of photographers from all over the world not to welcome nature’s interventions. I mean, after all, the idea that we’re actually in control is, at best, a pleasant illusion. We don’t really understand lightning, and yet, somehow, we’ve been given the ability to capture it in a box. Strange.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE ISN’T ANYTHING EMPTIER THAN THE PERFECT EXECUTION OF A FLAWED IDEA. And in the present effects-drenched photographic arena, where nearly any texture, color, or conception can be at least technically realized, we need, always, to be making one crucial distinction: separating what we can do from what we should do.
The basic “fixes” which come natively loaded in even the most basic cameras (filters, effects, nostalgic slathers of antique colors) suggest a broad palette of choices for the photographer looking to extend his reach through what is basically an instantaneous short cut. Fine and dandy, so far. Who, after all, wants to labor for hours to augment a shot with a particular look if that effect can be achieved at the touch of a button? Certainly no one gets into photography anymore with the understanding that they will also have to act as a chemist, and creativity need not be the exclusive playground of the scientifically elite. We all agree that the aim of photography always has and always should be the placing of all tools in as many hands as possible, etc., etc.
But waita seccint. Did I say the world tool? ……(will the recorder read that last part back….?……”placing of all tools in as many…”)… yep, tool. Ya see, that word has meaning. It does not mean an end unto itself. A fake fisheye doth not a picture make. Nor doth a quickie panorama app, a cheesy sepia filter, nor (let’s face it) the snotty habit of saying “doth”. These things are supposed to supplement the creative moment, not be a substitute for it. They are aids, not “fixes”.
This comes back to the earlier point. Of course we can simulate,imitate, or re-create certain visual conditions. But what are we actually saying in the picture? Did we use the effect to put a firm period at the end of a strong sentence, or did we use it as a smoke bomb to allow us to exit the stage before the audience gets wise to the fakery?
One of the original objections to photography, as stated by painters, was that we were handing off the actual act of visual artistry to a (gasp!) machine. A little hysterical, to be sure, but a concern is still worth addressing.
There is a soul in that machine, to be sure.
But only if we supply it.