By MICHAEL PERKINS
Smiling faces, smiling faces sometimes, they don’t tell the truth —The Undisputed Truth
One can smile and smile, and yet be a villain…..William Shakespeare
THE GREAT ANNIE LEIBOVITZ, writing in her wonderful treatise on technique, At Work, confesses that she never asks her subjects to smile, leaving their most natural expression to emerge (or even remain hidden) as they choose. I love this idea, since I believe that smiles have forever been the mandatory mask we reflexively profer to the camera in nearly every setting, to the detriment, occasionally, of trustworthiness in our pictures. We smile at birthdays, anniversaries, reunions, weddings, perhaps occasionally even at funerals. We gamely grin our way through every occasion that calls for a photographic record, freezing our faces into rictuses amid toothy recitations of the word “Cheeeeeese“, as if any other response to a lens is incomplete, or, worse, rude. Ironically, when the grimace becomes too strained, we may even urge the shooter to “hurry up and take the picture”, lest our face freeze that way. Nevertheless, smiles are the social default, the unspoken civil grammar of portraiture.
And yet, consider how many astounding, revelatory portraits are virtually smile-less, or how we can sometimes view an image with outright suspicion if the smiles within it strike us as forced or contrived. More importantly, we might ask ourselves, what the hell is everyone so happy about? The urge to smile, darn you, smile in photographs is certainly a deeply rooted one. Perhaps the first person to beam for the camera was also the first person who didn’t have to pose stock-still for a full minute just to be recorded by the slow media of the 1800’s, a rod jacked up his back to keep his head immobilized. Who knows? But whatever the original motivation was to “look pleasant” (as early shooters often instructed), it stuck, and is now, in the age of the social-media-fed fueled selfie, practically an article of faith. We’re all so damned overjoyed to be here. Just take the picture, willya?
Have we all become slaves to the mandatory mask? Dare we have our picture taken when it’s not “a beautiful day in the neighborhood”? Are we doomed to endlessly emulate Alfred E. Neuman’s “what, me worry?” smirk? Can’t there be more to a portrait than just a simulation of jollity? Certainly we need not consistently present ourselves as dour grumps before the camera, but there must be some kind of happy (content? beneficient? neutral?) medium. Is the boy in the shot seen here any less “real” or interesting just because he forgot to say the “c” word? Or did we happen upon something closer to his real self that the mandatory mask might have concealed?
Every portrait is different, since every person’s face is a different and unique set of stories. Might it not take more than a mere smile to get all those stories told in an authentic way? Without a doubt, happiness, real happiness, is an experience that every photographer aspires to capture. But, emotionally, happiness is not the only arrow in the shooter’s quiver. If we’re really about truth-telling in our pictures, we have to get comfortable when something other than the mask shows up in the final product.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FACES ARE A LOT LIKE SKIES ON A DAY OF WIND-DRIVEN OVERCAST, with emotions sweeping swiftly across their features, alternatively lightening, darkening, producing bursts of color and dusks of shadow, all in the space of a few seconds. The mood changes that play upon our faces from moment to moment are so far-reaching that, in a static medium like still photography, we often feel we cannot create a single image that “tells all” about even the most familiar people in our lives. There are times when more than one feeling is layered over others, with only one state of mind captured in a single frame.
Or so I used to believe.
As stated in previous pages of this small-town newspaper, my parents have had both the great good luck and the jarring challenge of living very close to the century mark. With geography separating us from each other most of the time, the ticking of the clock adds a fearful urgency to my attempts to photograph them in what is essentially their ninth inning. As to how I can shoot them, formal sittings are largely a thing of the past: both are well beyond forced posing, having said “cheese” more times than the entire population of Wisconsin, leaving me to maintain a constant vigil for the unguarded, and potentially revelatory, moment. And that’s where a latter-day gift of sorts has burst onto the scene. Far from the emotionally simple “happy Dad”, “sad Mom” pictures that were emblematic of their earlier years, I now see their faces as aggregations, multi-level combinations of several emotions all registering in the same moment. It’s as if their features have become one of those plexiglass “how it’s made” models of a complex airplane that shows all of the craft’s inner workings at once, or, in simpler terms, as if my camera had been transformed into a CT scanner.
One very effective ignition point for seeing this layering in my father, for example, comes when he is consuming what we will lightly call The News Of The Day. One need not comment on specific issues to recognize that the present world is a very complicated place, and that, when you are ninety, it’s tough not to filter everything through decades of comparable experiences. In watching Dad watch the world these days, I can simultaneously see the many versions of him that I’ve learned to recognize throughout the years. Curiosity? Certainly, but also consternation, hope, bewilderment, sadness, wisdom, and, to a greater and greater degree, resignation. The world is racing forward, not quite yet without him on board, but certainly nowhere near the front of the parade. And since I trail him in age by twenty-three years, I have not yet seen all that he has seen, but I certainly feel a version of his own feelings of accumulation, even from my more limited lookout point above life’s battlefield. The sheer weight of all those feelings is fully one-third stronger in him than in me, but my own legacy of sensations has taught me to detect (and hopefully capture in my box) stories that say much more about his inner mind than just “happy” or “sad”. His face, and that of my mother’s as well, is now more than just familiar: it’s prophetic. I try to see what he and she are teaching…..a very strange, elegant and sometimes terrifying tapestry. Still, even though the view is often obscured by tears, I will never blink or look away. This is a premium seat I occupy now, and I have paid handsomely for the privilege of sitting here.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
NOWHERE ELSE IN PHOTOGRAPHY does the conflict between mere recording and deliberate interpretation manifest itself more than in the portrait. We love the spontaneity of the unposed snap, with its potential for capturing the innocent, unguarded moment. However, snaps are a random thing, and by nature undisciplined, raw. The control of the studio, with its calculated exposure and modulated light, has its allure as well. It’s not like we want it both ways: no, we definitely want it both ways.
Hence the emergence of the Plandid.
Recent trends on social media have given rise to a new portrait hybrid called the planned candid, or “plandid”, formalized shots that are designed to create the illusion of a spontaneous snap. In fact, people have been faking “happy accidents” like these for as long as there’ve been cameras. What distinguishes plandids from earlier versions of faked reality, however, is that most of them are self-portraits and the majority of them are created primarily on mobiles.
In some ways this was inevitable. Everyone, but everyone has already done the trombone-arm, face-only selfie, the wide-screen lenses on our phone cameras distorting our heads into ovoids and ballooning our noses into sausages. Enter the plandid, which feeds into two dearly held articles of human faith; one, nothing is more worth pointing a camera at than us; and two, the only person who gets us well enough to turn us into something even more fascinating is….wait for it……us.
And thus arrives the age of Selfie 2.0, in which we employ tripods and timers and pull the typical headshot back, to reveal entire bodies, props, and atmosphere. However, doing that much advance prep is way too much like conventional photography, and thus anathema to the hipster within, so the trick becomes faking the look of having “just stumbled upon” a great picture. Huh?
Of course, I’m exactly like the school dietitian who guiltily sneaks fries on the side, because of course I have absolutely hopped into this narcissistic playpen, doing my own plandids with a DSLR for that extra degree of control. Add my own patented, wistful away-from-the-camera look and you get the perfect moment in which I’m caught by some discerning, lucky amateur (me) in a stolen moment of quiet (fake) contemplation.
Diane Arbus once called a photograph a lie that tells you the truth. But there’s something to be said about just flat-out lying, just for fun.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE EXQUISITE PLEASURES usually denied to even the best portrait photographers is the ability to turn back the clock, to use the camera to x-ray one’s way past a subject’s accumulated life layers, peering into the “them” that was. It’s not really that it’s impossible to retrieve part of a person’s yester-faces. It’s that it’s maddingly elusive, like getting a brief glimpse of a lighthouse beacon amidst billows of pea-soup fog. We have to take faces, for the most part, at, well, face value.
Case in point: meeting my wife, as I did, long after we both had lived fairly complete first lives, I can only know the early visual version of her through other people’s pictures. It allows me to look for parts of those earlier faces whenever I make new images of her, but I can never know when any of them will flash up to the surface. It does happen, but there’s no way to summon it at will.
Marian grew up in a beach town, with the seasons and rhythms of shore life defining her own to a degree. As a consequence, I always welcome the chance to shoot her near the sea….along beaches, atop windswept piers, weaving her way through the sights and sounds of boardwalks and harbors.
Of course, restoring Marian to her original context, by itself, is no guarantee that I’ll harvest any greater photographic truth about her face’s formative years than I do on any other day. Still, I find the idea romantic and brimming with tantalizing potential. Will I be given an audience with the ghosts of Marian past today? Will they even show up? The mystery of faces leads photographers on a blind chase, with only the occasional find to convince us to continue the hunt.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS A SON, I am extremely aware that my parents are in the final innings of their particular ballgame, a journey they began nearly sixty-seven years ago and a pairing that has defined their lives along with those of countless others. And, as a photographer, I have come to realize that every phase of Mother and Dad’s time together has produced its own unique visual treasures and challenges.
The images that are made of them these days….congratulatory parties, miraculous birthdays, mythic anniversaries….are repeats of similar occasions spanning decades, even as they are also emotional re-castings of old roles. Such pictures are both records of what has been and chronicles of what remains. For both Mother and Dad, steps do indeed come slower these days, but memories still move at light speed. Physical age and emotional wisdom conduct an ongoing tug-of-war across all their days. Making photographs of this process is tricky.
I know that, when my camera is too visibly present, it creates discomfort for them. For a variety of reasons that may include merely being over it all, they are not keen on the idea of “sitting for portraits”. I can best respect this by seizing other kinds of moments, in other kinds of ways.
Recently, I caught a very lucky break, when they both went to their kitchen window to look over their beloved back yard, the acre lot resplendent with the tree plantings, deck buildings, and family events they’ve staged in it over more than a third of a century. Certainly, I don’t always instantly comprehend the value of a shot in the moment, but this one was obvious enough for even me.
There, in the moment, was the entire marriage in miniature: two people seeking, dreaming, discovering in tandem. No shy faces or self-conscious “say cheese” moments were needed to photograph their twinned hopes, their linked optimism. You can’t see their features, but these two people are unmistakably my parents.
Faces are remarkable documents, but they aren’t the only ones available to a photographer. That’s because there are a million tiny ways for humans to visually register emotional truth, a universe full of little grace moves that, singly or collectively, convey identity. My parents, like everyone’s, are eloquent, even when they do not stare into the camera to make their testimony.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY CONSISTS OF SELECTED SLICES OF TIME, thin shavings of moments forever taken out of their original contest and preserved as separate, miniature realities. This thing, these people, this time, the camera says, once were. Our mechanical act has yanked them out of the full flow of life and turned them into mere symbols of it.
Time, in photographs is shown in three main ways: just before something happens, as it happens, and just after it has happened. Amazingly, our mind easily keeps these categories distinct. When we read images we immediately know if an action was pending, ongoing, or complete at the time of its taking. To put it another way, think of these three phases as images of, say, the last chop taken at a standing tree, the tree toppling over, and the tree on the ground. But here’s a question; is our photographic style a preference for one of these three very specific time-states?
On a conscious level, probably not. But if we start to edit our output purposefully into three piles…..marked about to be, is, and was, we may see that the bulk of our personal work falls into one of these categories. Again, this happens below our waking mind most of the time. Still, when I am deliberately looking at the process, I find that the moments before something emerges, be that something a sunrise or a gunshot, pack the most impact for me as a viewer.
As an example, in studying an important event (a news story, let’s say) as it’s shown in a photograph, I’m more interested in what the Hindenburg looked like the second before it exploded than I am in the disaster that followed. I’m keener on the sunlight that is about to burst into a dark room than I am in the fully lit space. The second before everyone jumps out and yells “surprise” can possess as much drama (even more, I feel) than the shocked look on the birthday boy’s face a moment later. Or take the case of the above image from several years ago. I no longer actually remember what it was that had tickled this young man so. But that little moment in which he was about to discover something wonderful is a miracle to me forever.
The reason I mention this lies in the fact that, whenever I try to show something that is actively occurring, right now, I frequently find another thing, elsewhere in the picture, that is about to occur, and often that emerging event holds more interest. At least for me. We traditionally think of photographs as preserving the past, and so they generally do. But they are also testimony to something that may, or may not be, about to become something unique. That uncertainty, that mystery, is another element of what makes photographic art so rich, so endlessly tantalizing.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOME OF MY URBAN PHOTOGRAPHY COULD POTENTIALLY STRIKE THE AVERAGE VIEWER as somewhat remote, even a bit cold. It flies in the face of some of the universally held “truths” about so-called street photography. Sometimes it doesn’t even have a face. Or faces.
If the best street shooters are thought to reveal truth in the features of the denizens of all those boulevards, then I might really be at a disadvantage, since many of my images are not about faces.
They are, however, about people.
I tend to use passersby, in city pictures, to several ends. beyond the regular kind of unposed portraiture that is standard “street” orthodoxy. One is scale, that is, how they dominate or are diminished by the sheer size or scope of their surroundings. Some cities seem to swallow people, reducing them to anti-sized props in an architect’s tabletop diorama. I try to show that effect, since, as a city dweller, it affects me visually. Other times, I show people completely silhouetted or swaddled in shadow. This is not because their faces aren’t important, but because I’m trying to accurately show their roles as components in an overall choreography of light, as I would a mailbox or a car. Again, the idea is not to avoid or conceal the stories that may reside in their faces, but to also accentuate their body language, how they occupy a space, and, yes, as abstract design elements in a large still life (okay, that sounds a bit clinical).
I certainly bow to the masters whose controlled ambushes of strangers have captured, in candid facial shots, harrowing, inspiring, or amusing emotions that deepen our understanding of each other. You could rattle off their names as easily as I. But using people in pictures isn’t only a miniature invasion into their features, and certainly isn’t the only way to depict their intentions or dreams.
And then there is the other problem for the street portraitist, in that some faces will remain ciphers, resisting the photographer’s probe, explaining or revealing nothing. In those cases, a face poses more questions than it answers. As usual, the argument is made by the individual picture.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE CHOICE OF TIME, PLACE AND APPROACH IN THE MAKING OF A PORTRAIT is as individual as the human face itself. No two photographers have quite the same process for trying to capture the essence of personality with a camera. Moreover, having chosen a preferred path to making these most personal of images, we often are tempted to stray off of it. As with anything else in the art of creating photos, nothing, from formal studio settings to street candids, works all the time.
Just as one example, the key to portraits, for me, is to always be as fully mindful, in the moment, of the changes that a face can display within the space of a few seconds. You seem to be presented, from start to finish, with a different person altogether…..some other person that showed up, uninvited, to the shoot you’re doing for..someone else. Thus, it’s never a surprise to me when a subject views his/her image from a session, and immediately remarks, “that doesn’t even look like me”, which is, for them, quite correct. It’s as if their face showed something, just for a second, that they don’t recognize as their “official” face. And the photographer sees all these strangers blur by, like the shuffle of a deck of cards.
In photographing my wife Marian, I battle against her native resistance to having her face recorded, well, at all. It’s a rather invasive procedure for her, and, since the finest qualities of her face are revealed when she’s least self-conscious. That rules out studio settings, since all her “danger, Will Robinson” triggers will go off simultaneously the more formalized the situation becomes. I have to use that momentary mindfulness to sense when her face is ready….that is, when she is least aware of having her picture taken. That may mean that many other people are around her, since interaction is relaxing and distracting for her. In the above image, I got particularly lucky, since several factors converged in a moment that I could not have anticipated.
Listening to a history guide on the streets of Boston, Marian’s face set into a wonderful mix of serenity, focus, studiousness. Her finest qualities seem all to have coalesced in a single moment. Even better, although she is in a crowd, the arrangement of people surrounding her kept all other faces either out of focal register or partially hidden, rendering them less readable as full people. That gave the composition a center, as hers was the only complete face in view. Click and done.
Portraits are certainly about anticipation and preparation. But they also have to be about the reactivity of the photographer. And with something as mutative, and mysterious, as the human face, flexibility is a far more valuable tool than any lens or light in your kit bag.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SHOW ME A HOLIDAY SEASON AND I’LL SHOW YOU PEOPLE WAITING FOR SOMETHING TO HAPPEN. They form lines for special orders, last-minute items, a kid’s brief audience with Santa. They hope to bump someone on a flight, beat someone out of a bargain, talk someone into a discount, refund or exchange. But mostly, they wait.
For as many festive holiday subjects that dance before the photographer’s eye, there are many more scenarios in which nothing much happens but..the waiting. And, while this seemingly endless hanging-out never offers images that define joy or wonder, they are fodder to the street shooter within us, the guy looking for stories. Stories of tired feet. Tales of people who can’t get a connecting flight ’til tomorrow at the earliest. Sagas of mislaid plans and misbegotten presents. Folklore of folks who are lost, lonely, disappointed, and down. In short, all of us, at various times.
Transit points are often among the most poignant during the season, with legions of faces that plead, what’ll I get for her? How will I get all the way down this list? How soon can I get home? Your best bet? Hang at the train stations, the port authorities, the airports, and hear the plaintive strains of I’ll Be Home For Christmas sung in the key of ‘as if’. Seek out those aches, that weariness, the many false starts and stumbling finishes of the holidays. And keep your camera ready, hungry for whatever visions dance in your head.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S FAIRLY EASY TO FIGURE OUT WHERE TO TAKE YOUR CAMERA if you are trying to visually depict a vibe of peace and quiet. Landscapes often project their serenity onto images with little translation loss, and you can extract that feeling from just about any mountain or pond. For the street photographer, however, mining the most in terms of human stories is more particularly about locations, and not all of them are created equal.
Street work provides the most fodder for storytelling images in places where dramatically concentrated interactions occur between people. One hundred years ago, it might have been the risk and ravage of Ellis Island. On any given sports Sunday, the opposing dreams that surround the local team’s home stadium might provide a rich locale. But whatever the site, social contention, or at least the possibility of it, generates a special energy that feeds the camera.
In New York City, the stretch of Fifth Avenue that faces the eastern side of the Empire State Building is one such rich petri dish, as the street-savvy natives and the greener-than-grass tourists collide in endless negotiation. Joe Visitor needs a postcard, a tee-shirt, a coffee mug, or a discounted pass to the ESB observation deck, and Joe Hometown is there to move the goods. Terms are hashed over. Information slithers in and out a dozen languages, commingling with the verbal jazz of Manhattan-speak. Deals are both struck and walked away from. And as a result, stories flow quickly past nearly every part of the street in regular tidal surges. You just pick a spot and the pictures literally come to you.
In these images, two very different tales unfold in nearly an identical part of the block. In the first, bike rickshaw drivers negotiate a tourist fare. How long, how far, how much? In the second, two regulars demonstrate that, in New York, there is always the waiting. For the light. For parking. For someone to clear away, clear out or show up. But always, the waiting. These are both little stories, but the street they occur on is a stage that is set, struck and re-set constantly as the day unfolds. A hundred one-act plays a day circle around those who want and those who can provide.
Manhattan is always a place of great comings and goings, and here, in front of the most iconic skyscraper on earth, those who haven’t seen anything do business with those who’ve seen it all. Street photography is about opportunity and location. Some days give you one or the other. Here, in the city that never sleeps, both are as plentiful as taxicabs.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ALMOST WITHIN MINUTES OF THE INVENTION OF THE CAMERA, we humans countered by inventing the camera face.
You have one. I have one. It’s the layer, the mask, the official story, the press release, the prepared consumer product. And while we often associate the making of a photograph with the creation of a document, a frozen slice of actual reality, that has never really been true, especially when it comes to capturing the raw essence of our fellow homo sapiens. It’s not that we don’t occasionally manage to glimpse the real person within: it’s that such glimpses are anything but easy.
And if our regular life is something of a performance, at least where a camera’s concerned, what of the acknowledged manipulation of an “official” performance….a play, a concert, a naked poetry slam? In such cases, the amount of artifice presented to the camera is amped up even more, so that the actual show may reveal nearly nothing of the person staging it. Total opacity.
It’s enough to make a photographer sneak backstage, minutes before the lights go down and the curtain goes up.
And that’s the kind of performance image I look for. The jangled nerves. The last-minute tunings and scales. The features that betray the anguish of going out there and putting your whole self on approval before strangers. In effect, the story that plays out on faces despite the prep, beyond the skill, behind the mask.
As seen here, the girl hurrying to the stage for her string solo is trustworthy. She’s nervous, a little embarrassed at being late, desperate to hold, onto her music, literally by the skin of her teeth. Above, the string of young people at an amateur fashion show are busier being kids than being pros. Their take on modeling is not cold or detached, although in seconds, out on the catwalk, they will affect that “look”. But now, in this moment, they are friends, co-conspirators, partners in a commonly weird process. They relax. They laugh.
In both cases, these are people. Without the polish, minus the artifice, their striving visible, if just for a second, as our own.
And that’s when the magic happens.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE LUXURY THAT PAINTERS HISTORICALLY ENJOYED OVER PHOTOGRAPHERS was the pure prolonged incubation time between their conception of a thing and its realization on the canvas. Whatever else painting is, it is never an instantaneous process, something that is especially true for portraits. The daubing of strokes, mixing of paint, the waiting for the light, and the waiting for the model to arrive (take a bathroom break, eat dinner, etc.) all contribute to painting’s bias toward the long game. The process cannot be hurried. There is no pigmentary equivalent of the photographic snap shot. Patience is a virtue.
The first photographs of people were likewise a gradual thing, with extended exposure times dictated by the slow speed of early plate and film processes. Once that obstacle was overcome, however, it became a simple thing to snap a person’s face in less and less time. Today, outside of the formal studio experience, most of us freeze faces in record timae, and that may be a bit of a problem in trying to create a true portrait of a person.
Portraits are more than mere recordings, since the subject matter is infinitely more complex than an apple or a vase of flowers. The daunting task of trying to capture some essential quality, some inner soulfulness with a mechanical device should make us all stop and think a little, certainly a little longer than a fraction of a second. Portraits at their best are a kind of psychoanalysis, an negotiation, maybe even a co-creation between two individuals. The best portraitists can be said to have produced a visible relic of something invisible. Can that be done in the instant that it takes to shout “cheese” at somebody?
And if the process of portraiture is, as I argue, an innately personal thing, how can we trust the “street portraits” that we steal from the unsuspecting passerby? Are any of these images revelatory of anything real, or have we only snatched a moment from the onrushing current of a person’s life? Taking the argument away from the human face for a moment, if I take a picture of a single calendar date page, have I made a commentary on the passage of time, or merely snapped a piece of paper with a number on it?
Painters have always been forced into some kind of relationship with their subjects. Some fail and some succeed, but all are approached with an element of planning, of intent. By contrast, the photographer must apprehend what he wants from a face in remarkably short time, and hope his instinct can make an intimate out of a virtual stranger.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
“(the book is) flawed by meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposure, drunken horizons, and general sloppiness, (showing) a contempt for quality and technique…” –Popular Photography, in its 1958 review of The Americans
THOSE WORDS OF DISDAIN, designed to consign its subject to the ash heap of history, are now forever attached to the photographic work that, instead of vanishing in disgrace, almost single-handedly re-invented the way the world saw itself through the eye of a camera. For to thumb through Robert Frank’s 1958 collection of road images, The Americans, is to have one’s sense of what is visually important transformed. Forever.
In the mid-1950’s, mass-market photojournalist magazines from Life to Look regularly ran “essays” of images that were arranged and edited to illustrate story text, resulting in features that told readers what to see, which sequence to see it in, and what conclusions to draw from the experience. Editors assiduously guided contract photographers in what shots were required for such assignments, and they had final say on how those pictures were to be presented. Robert Frank, born in 1924 in Switzerland, had, by mid-century, already toiled in these formal gardens at mags that included Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, and was ready for something else, a something else where instinct took preference over niceties of technique that dominated even fine-art photography.
Making off for months alone in a 1950 Ford and armed only with a 35mm Leica and a modest Guggenheim grant, Frank drove across much of the United States shooting whenever and wherever the spirit moved him. He worked quickly, intrusively, and without regard for the ettiquette of formal photography, showing people, places, and entire sub-cultures that much of the country had either marginalized or forgotten. He wasn’t polite about it. He didn’t ask people to say cheese. He shot through the windshield, directly into streetlights. He didn’t worry about level horizons, under-or-over exposure, the limits of light, or even focal sharpness, so much as he obsessed about capturing crucial moments, unguarded seconds in which beauty, ugliness, importance and banality all collided in a single second. Not even the saintly photojournalists of the New Deal, with their grim portraits of Dust Bowl refugees, had ever captured anything this immediate, this raw.
Frank escaped a baker’s dozen of angry confrontations with his reluctant subjects, even spending a few hours in local jails as he clicked his way across the country. The terms of engagement were not friendly. If America at large didn’t want to see his stories, his targets were equally reluctant to be bugs under Frank’s microscope. When it was all finished, the book found a home with the outlaw publishers at Grove Press, the scrappy upstart that had first published many of the emerging poets of the Beat movement. The traditional photographic world reacted either with a dismissive yawn or a snarling sneer. This wasn’t photography: this was some kind of amateurish assault on form and decency. Sales-wise, The Americans sank like a stone.
Around the edges of the photo colony, however, were fierce apostles of what Frank had seen, along with a slowly growing recognition that he had made a new kind of art emerge from the wreckage of a rapidly vanishing formalism. One of the earliest converts was the King of the Beats Himself, no less than Jack Kerouac, who, in the book’s introduction said Frank had “sucked a sad poem right out of America and onto film.”
Today, when asked about influences, I unhesitatingly recommend The Americans as an essential experience for anyone trying to train himself to see, or report upon, the human condition. Because photography isn’t merely about order, or narration, or even truth. It’s about constantly changing, and re-charging, the conversation. Robert Frank set the modern tone for that conversation, even if he first had to render us all speechless.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE OLDEST CONSISTENT ROLE OF PHOTOGRAPHY IS AS NARRATIVE, its storytelling ability borrowed from painting but later freed, as painting would also be, from representations of mere reality. Before the beginning of the 20th century, photographs held moments, chronicled events, froze people in time. Over the next hundred tumultuous years, every part of the narrative process for all arts would be challenged, shattered and reassembled several times over. We pretend there are still rules that always apply to what an image says to us, but that is really only sentiment. Some photographs simply are.
What they are is, of course, both fun and infuriating for creator and audience alike. We wonder sometimes what we are supposed to think about a picture. We take comfort in being led a certain way, or in a set sequence. Look here first, then here, then here, and draw such-and-such a conclusion. But just as music need not relate a story in traditional terms (and often does not) the photograph should never merely present reality as a finished arrangement. The answer to the question, “what should I think about this?” can only be, whatever you find, whatever you yourself see.
I love having a clear purpose in a picture, especially pictures of people, and it has taken me years to make such images without the benefit of a deliberate road map. To arrange people as merely elements in a scene, then trust someone else to see what I myself cannot even verbalize, has forced me to relax my grip, to be less controlling, to have confidence in instincts that I can’t readily spell out in 25 words or less.
What are these people doing? What does their presence reveal beyond the obvious? Is there anything “obvious” about the picture at all? Just as a still life is not a commentary on fruit or a critique of flowers, some photographed people are not to be used in the service of a story. They can, in the imaginations of viewers, provide much more than that. Photography is most interesting when it’s a conversation. Sometimes that discussion takes place in strange languages.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I ALWAYS SCRATCH MY HEAD WHEN I SEE AN EATERY sporting a sign that boasts “American Cuisine”, and often have to suppress an urge to step inside such joints to ask the proprietor to explain just what that is. If there is one thing about this sprawling broad nation that can’t be conveniently corralled and branded, it’s the act of eating. Riff through a short stack of Instagrams to see the immense variety of foodstuffs that make people say yum. And as for the places where we decide to stoke up….what they look like, how they serve us, how they feel….well, that’s a never-ending task, and joy, for the everyday photographer.
Eating is, of course, more than mere nourishment for the gut; it’s also a repast for the spirit, and, as such, it’s an ongoing human drama, constantly being shuffled and re-shuffled as we mix, mingle, disperse, adjourn and regroup in everything from white linen temples of taste to gutbucket cafes occupying speck of turf on endless highways. It’s odd that there’s been such an explosion of late in the photographing of food per se, when it’s the places where it’s plated up that hold the real stories. It’s all American, and it’s always a new story.
I particularly love to chronicle the diners and dives that are on the verge of winking out of existence, since they possess a very personalized history, especially when compared with the super-chains and cookie-cutter quick stops. I look for restaurants with “specialities of the house”, with furniture that’s so old that nobody on staff can remember when it wasn’t there. Click. I yearn for signage that calls from the dark vault of collective memory. Bring on the Dad’s Root Beer. Click. I relish places where the dominant light comes through grimy windows that give directly out onto the street. Click. I want to see what you can find to eat at the “last chance for food, next 25 mi.” Click. I listen for stories from ladies who still scratch your order down with a stubby pencil and a makeshift pad. Click. Click. Click.
In America, it’s never just “something to eat”. It’s “something to eat” along with all the non-food side dishes mixed in. And, sure, you might find a whiff of such visual adventure in Denny’s #4,658. Hey, it can happen. But some places serve up a smorgasbord of sensory information piping hot and ready to jump into your camera, and that’s the kind of gourmet trip I seek.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MOST OF US ENTER PHOTOGRAPHY WITH THE SAME AIM, that is, to arrest the flight of something precious with the trick effect of having frozen time. Someone or something is passing through our life all too quickly, and we use our cameras to isolate small pieces of those passages like a butterfly inside an amber cube. That means that our first work is our most personal, and, while we may later graduate to more general, more abstract recordings of light, subject, and shape, we all begin by chronicling events of the most intimate nature.
And as we grow into more interpretative, less reportorial imaging, we also grow away from the clear, focused aim of that earlier work. Be it a triptych of a birthday, an anniversary, a wake or a christening, we understand clearly what a snap is for, what it was after. Its purpose and its message are unmistakable, something that cannot always be said for other kinds of photographs. Indeed, looking back on some of our own output at the distance of just a few years, we can actually be at a loss to explain what we were going after in a given photograph, what we were trying to say. This doesn’t happen with the snap. Its subject matter, and the degree to which we correctly captured it, is readily visible.
This may speak to why photographers are often asked why they don’t take “more pictures of people”, or, more specifically, why did you take a picture of this person? Do you know him? No? Then why……..?? It isn’t that a connection between yourself and people who are strangers to you can’t be made in a photograph. It’s that it’s a lot harder to effectively tell that story. it requires less from the camera and more from you.
You need to fill in a lot more blanks in a tale in which fewer elements are pre-provided. You can convey something universal about the human condition with a picture of something outside your own experience, certainly. It’s just that it’s easier to make the link that exists between you, your mother, her birthday, and her surrounding gang of friends than between yourself and someone who is essentially alien to you, or to the rest of us. Of course, on the other side of the ledger, you can also shoot a bajillion pictures of those closest to you, and still manage to convey nothing of their true selves. Mere technical acuity is not intimacy, or vision.
Still, in general terms, the snap deserves a lot more respect than it gets, simply because there is, in these personal images, a near-perfect match alignment of shooter, subject and clarity of purpose. By contrast, when we venture out into the greater world, trying to tell equally effective stories with much less information is hard. Not impossible, but, man, really hard.
BY MICHAEL PERKINS
IN PORTRAITS, PHOTOGRAPHERS SOMETIMES HAVE TO SUBSTITUTE INTIMACY FOR TECHNICAL PERFECTION. We understandably want to come as near as possible to meticulously modulated light in telling the story of a face, and so we try to ride the line between natural, if inadequate light, and light which is shaped so much that we dull the naturalness of the moment.
It’s a maddening tug of war. If we don’t intervene, we might make an image which is less than flattering, or, worse, unfit for publication. If we nib in too much, we get a result whose beauty can border on the sterile. I find that, more often than not, I lean toward the technically limited side, choosing to err in favor of a studied snapshot rather than a polished studio look. If the face I’m shooting is giving me something real, I worry more about throwing a rock into that perfect pond with extra tinkering.
If my subject is personally close to me, I find it harder, not easier, to direct them, lest the quality I’m seeing in their natural state be replaced by a distancing self-consciousness. It puts me in the strange position of having to wait until the situation all but gifts me with the picture, as adding even one more technical element can endanger the feel of the thing. It’s times like this that I’m jammed nose-up against the limits of my own technical ability, and I feel that a less challenged shooter would preserve the delicacy of the situation and still bring home a better photograph.
In the above frame, the window light is strong enough to saturate the central part of my wife’s face, dumping over three-fourths of her into deep shadow. But it’s a portrait. How much more do I need? Would a second source of light, and the additional detail it would deliver on the left side of her head be more “telling” or merely be brighter? I’m lucky enough in this instance for the angle of the window light to create a little twinkle in her eye, anchoring attention in the right place, but, even at a very wide aperture, I still have to crank ISO so far that the shot is grainy, with noise reduction just making the tones flatter. It’s the old trade-off. I’m getting the feel that I’m after, but I have to take the hit on the technical side.
Then there was the problem that Marian hates to have her picture taken. If she hadn’t been on the phone, she would already have been too aware of me, and then there goes the unguarded quality that I want. I can ask a model to “just give me one more” or earn her hourly rate by waiting while I experiment. With the Mrs., not so much.
Here’s what it comes down to: sometimes, you just have to shoot the damned thing.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU SEE RIDICULOUS ARTICLES FROM TIME TO TIME claiming that baseball has been replaced as America’s Pastime. Such spurious scribblings invariably point to game attendance, TV ratings, or some other series of metrics that prove that football, basketball, and, who knows, strip Scrabble have reduced baseball to some quaint state of irrelevancy. All such notions are mental birdpoop for one salient reason. No one is giving due attention to the word pastime.
Not “passion”. Not “madness”. Not even “loyalty”. Pastime. A way of letting the day go by at a leisurely pace. A way to gradually unfurl afternoons like comfy quilts. People-watching. Memory. Sentiment. Baseball is for watchers, not viewers, something that television consistently fails to realize. It’s the stuff that happens in the pauses, of which the game has plenty. Enjoying baseball, and photographing it as an experience, is about what happens in the cracks.
Images are waiting to be harvested in the dead spots between pitching changes. The wayward treks of the beer guys. The soft silence of anticipatory space just before the crack of a well-connected pitch. TV insists on jamming every second of screen time-baseball with replays, stat tsunamis, and analysis. Meanwhile, “live”, in the stadium, the game itself is only part of the entertainment. Sometimes, it actually drops back to a distant second.
Only a small percentage of my baseball pictures are action shots from the field: most are sideways glances at the people who bring their delight, their dreams, and their drama to the game. For me, that’s where the premium stories are. your mileage may vary. Sometimes it’s what’s about to happen that’s exciting. Sometimes it’s the games you remember while watching this one. There are a lot of human factors in the game, and only some of them happen between the guys in uniform.
Photography, as a pastime, affords a great opportunity to show a pastime. America’s first, best pastime.
It’s not just a ballgame. It’s an “all” game.
Root, root, root.
by MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE SIDE BENEFITS OF PHOTOGRAPHY is that you don’t always have to pick your own subject. Sometimes someone else’s idea of a potentially good image can be yours as well. You simply camp yourself right next to where they’re working and pick off your own shots of their project. Assuming that everyone’s polite and there are no issues of neighborly nibbing, it can work. Just ask anyone who’s clicked away at a presidential press conference or the sudden exit of a celebrity through a side entrance.
Of course, when literally dozens of cameras are trained on a single event, its likely that everyone will come away with the same photos, or very nearly. The moment the prime minister points to drive home his main point, click. The instant when the judges place the tiara on the winning Miss Tomato Paste candidate, click. Sometimes, however, you can kind of “eaves-edit” on just one other shooter’s set-up and edit the shots a different way than he does. You’re not running the session, but you could come away with a better result than he does, based on your choices.
I recently came upon a man shooting a girl in the streets of a kind of faux-village retail environment in Sedona, Arizona. Obviously, the main feature was the lady’s infectious and natural smile. As I came quietly upon them, however, Mr. Cameraman was having a problem keeping that smile from exploding into a full-blown laughing fit. Ms. Subject, in short, had the mad giggles.
Now, from that point onward, I have no idea of what he went home with in the way of a final result, as I had decided that the crack-ups would make better pictures than a merely sweet set of candids. It just seemed more human to me, so I only shot the moments in which she couldn’t compose herself, and took off from there.
I didn’t want to overstay my welcome, so I snapped my little chunk of Mr. Cameraman’s moment and sneaked off, like fast. As I slinked away, I could still hear Ms. Subject telling him, through fits of laughter, “I am so sorry.” She may have been, but I wasn’t.