By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN TIMES LIKE THESE, OUR EYES HUNGRILY SEEK OUT signs of continuity, proof that, even as many things pass away, other things, essential things, will go on. This desire to see a way for part of today to remain, as a part of tomorrow, is strong in days of crises, and it finds its way into the viewfinders of our cameras. We know, logically, at least, that a bit of the world is always ending. But we emotionally, we long to be assured that something important will remain. And we make pictures accordingly.
Like many, I have recently limited my time “out” to walks in wide open spaces. Six feet of separation and all that. The thing that connects me anew to those that I encounter is my camera, and so I have been shooting almost exclusively with what the commercial market calls a “super zoom”, the perfect tool for people who want to feel close but dare not actually get close. I don’t think of myself as deliberately spying or peeping on people, and much of what I see I reject as being a bit too intimate for sharing. But the general tableaux of everyday humanity comes up again and again, in ways which suggest effective images that do not betray my subject’s privacy, yet convey things that we are all feeling. It’s a tightrope walk, but with care, that very important personal distance can be respected.
In the image you see here, there’s nothing more universal than a mother and daughter walking together, and yet its value in memory, to me, is very specific. I clearly recall the sensation of walking with my father, all five feet nine of him, as a tiny boy, and seeing him as a giant….a mountain of reassuring protection. I stood on his shoulders: I ran between his legs: He swung me like a sling: His arms bore me up and gave me the sensation of flying like Superman. Most important was the pure transmission of happy energy from him to me, his life conducting itself into mine. We were a big candid photo family, and so I have lots of archival data on every part of my childhood, chronicles of years when my young parents grew up side by side with my sister and me and we were absorbed into the best part of them. My parents are 91 and 88 this year, and the current situation forbids my being in even the same half-continent as they, but I carry with me all my Walks With Giants, all the times I was the laughing girl in this image. I hope that she and her mother would not begrudge me the privilege of borrowing their energy and trapping a bit of it inside my box. It’s a life force that, in a larger sense, belongs to us all.
Because some things must go on.
And they will.
THE SPIRITUALIST POET WILLIAM BLAKE FAMOUSLY EXPRESSED HIS DESIRE to explore life in its smallest detail, to, as he put it in his poem Auguries of Innocence, “see the world in a grand of sand / and a heaven in a wild flower / hold infinity in the palm of your hand/ and eternity in an hour”. It’s the kind of sentiment that makes me believe he might have made a great photographer.
It’s unlikely that Blake, who was also a wonderfully gifted graphic artist and who died in 1827, ever held a camera in his hand, but from the first generation of photographers there was a decidedly Blakeian urge to explore the world at the most intimate levels, engineering lenses that allowed maximum magnification and resolution of the vast stories lingering right under our noses. Today, as never before, macro photography is finally within the technical and financial reach of the many, allowing spaces that barely comprise inches to reveal the complexities that we stroll past without regard on a daily basis. And just as all of photography is about extracting pieces of reality from the larger flow of time, so macro is about drawing things out of their original settings, to dramatize the elegance of design and pattern, to create a separate stillness. That certainly is what appeals to me about shooting in the small world….the ability to take things so far out of their regular context that we are forced to consider them as if we were encountering them for the first time.
To be sure, close-up work comes with its own set of unique technical challenges, but what makes it worthwhile is its ability to deliver the shock of the new, to depict the eternities residing within Blake’s grain of sand. For many of us, this process of discovery reaches its fullest expression in floral or botanical subjects, since magnifying their contours is almost like a crash course in geometry or architecture. Petals, seeds, pistils, stamens, leaves…..all are rotating in their own incredible orbits as if they were bit players in Fantasia, fantastic ballets in which size (or rather the transformation of scales and sizes) really does matter. In terms of technique, even a practiced photographer can be frustrated by the special demands raised by magnification. Certainly light and focal relationships work differently, as well as stabilization of the image. Predictably, every error of movement or lens flaw is utterly exposed once everything is increased in size, resulting in a higher percentage of failed shots and near misses. Still, one’s first plunge into macro is like Alice’s initial entry into a realm where everyday objects magically shrink and expand without warning.
Blake, like all artists, understood that art transforms and re-translates all experience, re-defines how we view everything, allows us to show all ranges of life from dark to light, remarking in Auguries that “man was made for Joy & Woe / and when this we rightly know / thro the World we safely go” Photography gets the big things right…. by paying attention to the worlds within worlds. It really is a game of inches, sometimes atoms.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY, WHEN IT FLEXES TO ITS FULLEST LIMITS, should never be about merely accepting things at face value. The camera is a fairly reliable recording device, but simply using it to freeze time severely limits its narrative potential. Of course, on a purely personal level, that’s frequently just what we want: to stop the clock on the vanishing of tender times and loved ones: to preserve life.
However, I believe that the camera should also preserve death.
I’m not talking about doing a series of close-ups of Grandpa in the crypt. I’m mostly thinking biological subjects here. Living things are most typically photographed in the full bloom of health: the eye luxuriates over bright explosions of color, the hardy flesh of petals, the skyward reach of tender saplings. But if a photographic subject gains extra interpretive power as it’s removed from its standard context (nature in its regular settings), then a living thing achieves the ultimate visual re-contextualization as its life begins to ebb. Taking the familiar out of its comfort zone opens it up to alternate interpretations.
The rose seen above, taken with a Lensbaby Velvet 56 (a wonderful portrait lens which doubles as a decent macro), was days dead when I came upon it, and yet it presented textures more intriguing, colors deeper and richer than its fresher vase-mates. Is this ghoulish?
Depends. Decay is, after all, something we document with great enthusiasm as it applies to inanimate things like rusted cars, crumbling neighborhoods and abandoned infrastructures. How much more attention should be paid, then, to things that once mirrored our own fleeting arrangement with mortality, once throbbed with pulses as perishable as those bounding through our own veins.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY PHOTOGRAPHIC LENS EVER MADE CREATES ARTIFACTS, distinct biases in the ways it renders the world it sees. When you shoot with a particular piece of glass, you’re also inviting in whatever flaws or limits are baked into that optic’s design and science. If you are the kind of shooter that constantly switches out lenses, this present less of a problem, since you’re used to snapping on the exact glass you need for every kind of shooting situation.
If, however, you try, like myself, to go nearly a day at a space with a minimum of gear, then you start to look for lenses that do most of what you want in most settings. Occasionally, this means compromising on, or even missing, a shot; but, by and large, it makes you more mindful of the image-making process from minute to minute. You plan better and react faster.
In the case of one of photography’s most popular categories, that of landscape work, there seem to be two main types of lenses that do most of the heavy lifting: the ultra-wide angle, which convey “openness” and scope, and zooms, which help isolate specific parts of vast vistas. There are certainly situations in which both are ideal, but, on average, were I to be traveling very light for the day, I would probably take most of the day’s images with the ultra-wide, even if there was a particular area inside a larger scene that was more “important” than its surroundings, a situation in which most of us might utilize the zoom.
This goes to my belief that the composing process almost never stops with the click of the shutter. Rather, the click is just phase one, and a master shot that allows for many post-shot “re-thinks” is the best one to have. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the center of an immense mountain range is where the light or the subject story is strongest in a given image. If my master shot is a taken with a zoom, I’ve lost the ability to later discover additional approaches that remain possible if I have a wider shot’s worth of information from which to select. Starting with the larger shot, I can shift the cropping to any aspect ratio I want, change the balance of the composition, re-orient the linearity (to create a faux panorama, as in the top shot here) or even realize that there was an even stronger story to be told outside of the frame I originally envisioned with the zoomed master shot. Here’s the core point: it’s easier to have more picture than you need and pare some stuff away than to narrow your options beforehand and trust that you’ve nailed it, meanwhile ruling out any potential re-takes or second thoughts.
I do, of course use zooms at times, but, like my external flashes and tripods, I find fewer uses for them with each passing year. It’s odd how you can come to feel greater freedom with fewer tools. But sometimes it’s like the time Itzhak Perlman busted a string just before a concert, then performed the program on just three strings, to the utter amazement of the critical world. Photography proves time and again that there are times when the image’s “melody” magically comes forward. In spite of.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY IS, ALTERNATIVELY, AN ART OF BOTH DOCUMENTATION AND SUGGESTION. It is, of course, one of its essential tasks to record, to mark events, comings, goings, arrivals, and passings. That’s basically a reporter’s function, and one which photographers have served since we first learned to trap light in a box. The other, and arguably more artistic task, is to symbolize, to show all without showing everything. And on this Father’s Day (as on every one), we honor our parents by taking photographs which address both approaches.
For many years, I have taken the obvious path by capturing the latest version of Dad’s face. It’s an ever-changing mosaic of effects, which no photographer/storyteller worth his salt can resist. But in recent years, I also am trying to symbolize my father, to make him stand not only for his own life, but for the miles traveled by all parents. For this task, a face is too specific, since it is so firmly anchored to its own specific myths and legends. To make Dad emblematic, not just as a man but rather as “Man”, I’ve found that abstracting parts of him can work a little better than a simple portrait.
These days, Dad’s hands are speaking to me with particular eloquence. They bear the marks of every struggle and triumph of human endeavor, and their increasing fragility, the etchings on the frail envelope of mortality, are especially poignant to me as I enter my own autumn. I have long since passed the point where I seem to have his hands grafted onto the ends of my own arms, so that, as I make images of him, I am doing a bit of a trending chart on myself as well. In a way, it’s like taking a selfie without actually being in front of the camera.
Hands are the human instruments of deeds, change, endeavor, strength, striving. Surviving. They are the archaeological road map of all one’s choices, all our grand crusades, all our heartbreaking failures and miscalculations. Hands tell the truth.
Dad has a great face, a marvelous mix of strength and compassion, but his hands…..they are human history writ large.
Happy Father’s Day, Boss.