PUT ME IN, COACH
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SHERLOCK HOLMES BUILT A CAREER ON LEAVINGS. The master sleuth of Baker Street was not famous not so much for actually catching malefactors in the act, but by being the first on the scene to decipher clues they left behind, in ashes from cigars or traces of muddy footprints, determining if the Bad Guys had been there as well as where they might likely appear next. In those early days of forensic analysis, Holmes was a little like a photographer, who frequently happens on scenes that are both the echoes and the harbingers of human activity.
In the past year, shooters have spent a lot of time walking deserted cities, framing up the echoes of events that were called off or interrupted, analyzing the streets for evidence of the people who have fled them for safer quarters. Neon signs that blink and boast to no one; infrastructures built to accommodate multitudes, now reduced to dusty silence. Pictures made of these things are, in some ways, proof that people were here just a minute ago, and may, in fact, sneak back soon, in staggered, smaller waves…..a few brave walkers or bored explorers at a time. Indeed, many of us are making what I call “you just missed them” pictures…..shots that prove that, like us, others ventured out for a look at the emptiness, or might even have tried to re-fill it for a time, then retreated.
The timid re-beginnings of things are under way now, and our brief, out-of-the-cave venturings are slowly building back to nominal speed, with things like baseball, once so omnipresent as to be invisible, now returning like a spring shoot. In small parks and playgrounds, you may still find it hard to arrive at the precise moment when actual humans are on the scene. Some days you overlap with each other, other days we’re like Holmes examining the traces of someone who’s left some kind of mark, like the phantom footprints seen here around home plate. We still have to imagine the bodies, the cries of “play ball”, the whir of activity. Right now, there are just traces of people who, like us, have decided to walk outside and see what’s up. But the traffic is returning, and, with it, the opportunity to, like Holmes, ascertain that “the game’s afoot.”
Once again, the imperatives that determine what kinds of pictures we make are about to redefined. And persistently clicking away, as the changes roll on, is the true role of photography, as we stitch a bunch of isolated, frozen moments into a narrative quilt.
HUE AND HUE ALONE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MOST DISCUSSIONS ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHY begin with a body of commonly held terms, the basic and uniform names given to things. Such common ground is vital if we’re to understand each other. I can’t expect you to hand me a hammer if I ask you for a wrench. And so we base all our conversations about making images on words that mean generally the same to all of us….focus, aperture, exposure, etc. Makes sense, doanit?
And yet, over the years, we can disagree on what some of those words even mean, and that can slow down discourse.
Take the word monochrome. Most simply translated from the original Greek word monochromos, it means “having one color”, just as a monopod is a one-legged tripod. Seems a simple enough concept, and yet, in recent years, photographic journals, camera manufacturers and, Lord save us, blogs have increasingly begun to define the word as something that is color-less…that is, black-and-white. I know, seems like a really nit-picky point to raise in these complicated times of serious issues. And yet, if we allow imprecise speech to creep into our communications, we eventually get discourse which is imprecise as well.
Black-and-white, or grayscale is monochrome, but not all monochrome is black and white. The image seen here consists of varying tones of a single color, and so, strictly speaking, it is monochromatic, but is certainly not grayscale. Since photography was exclusively b&w for almost a century before films could produce a complete range of hues, we tend to think of the medium as being divided into two eras, Before Color and After Color. However, shooters who worked nearly their entire careers in grayscale, or, let’s say, a good 2/3 of an Ansel Adams’ lifespan, black-and-white was not “colorless” but a kind of color all its own, as legitimate as blue or red or whatever have you. Under the present understanding of these things, however, my image of a warm orange railway bench would be summarily tossed out of any image sharing site that defined itself as monochrome-themed. And that would be wrong.
Yes, I know……
Can’t you think of anything else to obsess over on a Sunday morning, old man?, I hear you moaning. Well, yes, yes I can. However, a 400-word treatise on why my poached eggs were runny at breakfast wouldn’t exactly leave readers riveted either, so, for the moment, let’s not call a wrench a hammer, and let’s not pretend that only grayscale is monochrome.
HOW TO NOT DO
THIS FORUM HAS NEVER REALLY BEEN ABOUT GEAR, being an examination of why we make photographs rather than what specific equipment we use to do so. Of course, pictures aren’t born in a vacuum, so, even with the purest artistic motives, you still need a mechanism of some kind to carry out your wishes…and that means that some of what we discuss here is very much about what happens in them little magic light boxes. Still, this awareness has never led us into actual recommendations for specific products, as there are simply too many such advisories littering up the webby highway without me jumping into the fray.
Such neutrality about suggesting what to buy, however, can be maintained if I am listing reasons not to buy a camera, as such cautions transcend brands and models. That is, no matter why you decide to go gear shopping, there are things that should always be borne in mind, if our point is the motivation behind photography and not the devices we use. Call it a “how to not do” list. So, assume for a moment that you are suddenly in the market for a new gadget and consider the following.
DO NOT buy a camera because your friend, uncle, friend at the factory or buddy at the camera store uses it. Unless they are also going to take your pictures for you, their advice is so subjective as to be worthless.
Even in the age of easy online returns, do yourself a favor and DO NOT buy a camera that you’ve never held in your hand. The ergonomic layout of cameras varies widely from maker to maker, and it really does make a difference where they stick the buttons.
DO NOT buy any more camera than you need for what you do right now. It’s all right to select a few features that you may eventually use, even if you don’t use them at present. But that’s a far cry from buying a device that is drowning in options, seldom-used features, and infinite sub-menus. Pay good money for just the camera you need, with a smidge of extra growth room built-in. If you later find that you’ve outgrown the camera, then and only then is it time to trade up. Gear that is too strong on extra gizmos only gets partly used and can be intimidating enough to wind up in the hall closet a year later, after you’ve gone back to your cell phone.
DO NOT assume that the latest thing is the greatest thing. Manufacturers make their profits on the backs of customers who can be made to feel dissatisfied with what they own, and obsolescence is built into their marketing. There is aIso the problem that some companies’ models decrease in quality or precision as the brand ages (or as they chase greater profits). If your camera helps you take good pictures easily, and without a lot of exotic setup or detours, then keep it until it disintegrates in your hand.
DO NOT purchase equipment that places unnecessary obstacles between your conception and the finished product. If going from framing to shooting involves too many steps, your camera is taking your attention away from seeing, and that means missing shots. Making a picture should be as effortless as 1, 2, 3. If you already are on step 5 before you even click the shutter, get another camera.
DO NOT initially over-invest in a battalion of specialized lenses. You will eventually get to the point where lugging all that load will prove either inconvenient or painful or both, and many a photographer has eventually winnowed down his/her “must-carry” gear to a single lens that delivers 90% of what they want 90% of the time. Think about how much fun it is to lug around a lot of devices that only do a single task, and then run in the opposite direction.
Finally, DO NOT buy a camera that you are not head-over-heels, OMG, stop-the-presses in love with. Anything less will also wind up in the aforementioned hall closet.
Smmary: photography is about the gear….sometimes, but mostly it’s about everything else. Sexy ads and four-star reviews are deliriously distracting, and we all love to dream. But mostly, we’re here to make pictures.
WE ARE ALL BURT LANCASTER NOW
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I REMEMBER BEING FASCINATED as a child by the 1963 film The Birdman Of Alcatraz, based loosely on the life of murderer Robert Stroud, whose accumulated crimes drew him a life sentence, much of it spent in solitary confinement. The movie, starring Burt Lancaster, centered on Stroud’s almost accidental introduction to birds, an improvised pastime which blossomed into an extensive and self-taught study of ornithology. The story’s biggest impact on me was the idea that someone could center on the smallest scintilla of hope, something others around you might ignore or simply not see at all, and that such small things might lead beyond mere survival to a kind of separate peace, even wisdom. In retrospect, I probably should have chosen a better model than that of a total psychopath. Still, the idea of being able to successfully navigate isolation was one that occasionally fascinated me over a lifetime. It’s also come to mind a great deal over the past year.
To paraphrase a cliched expression, we are all Burt Lancaster now; we have all learned to place greater focus on smaller worlds, and it is no accident that one of the biggest growth industries during our Global Great Hibernation has been the hobby of birdwatching. It’s cheap, it’s relatively easy to break into, and it’s as close as your window. More importantly, it’s a reassurance that life, or some semblance of it, has gone on, even if all we can do is watch as it wafts by. Like Stroud, we are all improvising to reduce the ache of greatly reduced circumstances. And like prisoners everywhere, confined behind either tangible or figurative bars, we are able, maybe for the first time, to see, in depth, something that was all but invisible to our previous system of seeing.
For photographers, including this one, birds can be a metaphor for many things we already value about our art. Color, motion, texture, context, even a kind of portraiture…all are addressed in trying to assign traits or personalities to flying creatures. Working from the long, empty days, we slow down and deepen our observational powers. We view things in finer depths and degrees, in inches rather than miles now. I will freely admit that my own photographic coverage of birds had been, during The Before Times, confined to the easiest, most obvious captures; flocks caught accidentally in a vast beach vista; raptors in zoo cages; the occasional comic shot of a gull stealing a hot dog, etc. The quarantine has altered all that, stretching time like taffy, elongating our implementation of any undertaking from hours to days. But this is not an effort to overprescribe a general therapy for everyone; your “birds” may be furniture, the veins of a leaf, still lifes of your accumulated buffalo nickels. This is why we have congregations of varying denominations. While I am worshipping at the first temple of the ruby-throated sparrow, you may bow your head at the Community Church of the Holy Art Deco Ashtray or some such. The idea is that photography always benefits from patience and deliberation. Snap shots are marvelous manifestations of our impulses, but they are not the products of quiet contemplation.
My point is that there is room in your photography for both the spontaneous and the deliberative. In my case, tiny tweeters have become a kind of surrogate for human subjects, as I find myself searching their faces for traces of motive, emotion, even joy. Unlike the Birdman of Alcatraz, most of us will eventually be sprung, released back into the larger work yard, hopefully having learned a little more about playing well with others. And the pictures we made behind walls will be, in lasting ways, capable of taking grander flight.
COMPETING WITH WHOM?
THE IMAGE YOU SEE HERE IS NOT MINE, although I’d gladly claim it anyday. It was taken by a lady named Judith Shields, an enthusiastic amateur who recently entered it in a photographic contest and apparently earned some distinction with it. Where she finally placed in the winners’ circle is not as significant, however, as the fact that she was docked points by the judge of the competition because the center of the flower, being fairly open, did not conform to his concept of what constituted a “correct” depiction of the subject. Or something. Since the remark makes no sense whatsoever in terms of either art or photography, it understandably sparked an online thread about (1) why such a criterion should even be considered, and, as the conversation blossomed out, (2) what the value of photographic contests even is in the first place.
In the interest of transparency, let me state unequivocally, that the idea of pitting artists against each other and weighing their efforts as you might evaluate tomatoes at the state fair is anathema to me on its face. I realize that a select number of such contests actually result in increased prestige or opportunity for photographers, but that number is extremely small, and usually tied to specific professional organizations that are, in turn, linked to the print industry. Many more of these runoffs, though, are little more than vanity projects, and the value of both the judges and the judging varies wildly. To look at Ms. Shields’ picture and see anything else besides beauty and technical mastery is to pretty much miss the overall point of photography in particular, or art in general. Shooters take the world as they find it, and deciding not to make an image of a flower because it’s not at the right stage of “readiness” is beyond silly. And then there is the nagging question of who these judges are, and who, exactly, entrusted them with the safekeeping of All Photographic Truth.
And this doesn’t even begin to cover the profit angle of photo contests, hundreds of which not only charge admission fees, but which also post arcane terms of agreement that, if carefully examined, preserve the creator’s “copyright” while allowing the hosts of the contest near- complete control of what happens to the artist’s pictures, issues ranging from where they can be published to how they can be cropped or contextualized. Ms. Shields’ flower could, under the terms of such rules, be used to promote fertilizer or cheeseburgers, should the contest gods be so inclined, and she might have no say whatever in the matter. Finally, the idea of competition among artists flies in the face of a photographer’s duty to himself or herself, which is to produce the work and live by the work, without needing to offer either explanation or alibi. The fact that this beautiful picture exists is enough to justify that existence, in that it was the creation of a person of sensitivity and vision. What crown or laurel, conferred on it by any outside jury, can add a scintilla of extra value beyond that?
Volumes could be written about judges and critics who initially disqualified what, in time, became the world’s photographic literature on the basis of this or that arbitrary rule or regulation. Pictures by Alfred Steiglitz, Walker Evans, Robert Frank and others were once routinely dismissed based on arcane concepts of composition, light, focus or other arbitrary standards that have no place in art. Finally, either a work connects with people or it doesn’t, a truth that no panel of curators or judges can alter by sniffing around the edges looking for something to make themselves seem more important. At last, it’s the pictures that either speak or don’t.
This one does.
THE YEAR OF UPHILL WALKING
By MICHAEL PERKINS
LIKE MANY, I WOULD HAVE A HARD TIME pinpointing the first photograph I shot after formally going into the Great Hibernation of 2020. The designated do-or-die date for heading ourselves into the bunker was fairly elastic, person-to-person, with some of us taking cover early in the spring, while others were forced to stay in-pattern for longer. I can determine, from the very type of pictures I took in this strange year, which were shot After The Before Times, but it would be mere guesswork to say that this image or the other was the first “confinement” photo per se.
But I can detect a change in the subject matter and viewpoint of those first days. I will always recall the realization that, as my world proceeded to shrink, my photography would become more introspective. This meant that my reaction to the sudden flood of spare time was, at least on good days, to luxuriate in the freedom it gave me; the leisure to select, to plan, to choose in the process of making pictures. As a consequence, in reviewing the year’s photographic yield, I find myself not so much choosing “favorites” or “bests” from the thousands of snaps I took in quarantine, but instead looking for the truest depictions of where my head was, and still is. This is all to say that I resisted getting in a year-to-year contest of some sort with myself over technique or skill and tried to concentrate on emotional accuracy.
This picture is not technically distinctive by any measure, nor is it particularly original, but it is true to where I was when I made it. In what could be called The Year Of Uphill Walking, it projects that struggle to just keep climbing, across rocky, barren terrain, in anxious anticipation of what may lie over the next horizon, and without the blandishment or warmth of color. No destination is sure, or even promised; no arrival time is predicted; only the journey itself exists. If I had to deliberately try to show what 2020 felt like, I couldn’t have found a more appropriate visual metaphor than this picture. This is not me being a superb planner of shots. This is me, months after the fact, marveling that some measure of this madness somehow organically made it into my camera. I never went out formally looking for a way to give expression for my feelings; I merely let the process happen through me, to be a barometer of what I thought it important to see and record.
Maybe that’s the way I should always make pictures. Sometimes I think I understand my process and other times I feel like it’s leading me around by the nose. I hope to re-discover genuine hope in 2021, but, if I…we, have to settle for less, I pray that I’ll at least find a way to tell stories about how that felt. And I hope I’ll remember how to put one foot in front of the other.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
A PURELY TECHNICAL ANALYSIS OF A PHOTOGRAPH understandably centers upon the measurable aspects of their capture…..aperture, exposure rate, focus, et cetera. However, in any full understanding of why an image works (or fails to), the photographer him/herself has to be factored in, alongside any purely mechanical settings, because, when you change life for the photographer, everything else in the picture is changed as a consequence. That’s the most determinative factor for photography in this grotesque year. We have been altered in ways great and small, and that will have made all the difference in what we see, and what we say about it with a camera.
For me, as in the case of so many others, these months have meant the struggle to expand my own photographic strengths, even as the physical plane in which I operate has been increasingly restricted. Many of us who have never experienced the isolation of exile, imprisonment or war now have at least an inkling of how those events cut people off from each other, challenging us to glean more and more life experience from less and less sensory input. In the face of the ever-present need to keep shooting, there are the increasingly narrow choices of what to shoot, with many sites and subjects closed off, at least for the duration. We have all become experts on every nook and light change in our immediate environments, and have discovered that, yes, there may be a 35th different way of photographing a window, a door, or our own faces.
Looking over my own output for the year, I see a definite bent toward minimalism, an almost ruthless appetite for reducing compositions to their raw essences. I am shooting things closer, abstracting the contexts of familiar objects in an effort to see them anew. I have thrown off most standard approaches to exposure, shooting in the sparest light that I can; and I have re-imagined more and more shots as monochromes, seeing even color as an unneeded distraction in these spare times. Mostly, I have been faced, as have so many, with a nearly zen approach to things I have photographed many times over the years, searching for new secrets in old friends.
For one example; as a consequence of the pandemic, I find myself walking again and again through a few designated-safe gardens and parks, which means a lot of repeated shots of the kind of subjects I find most difficult to put my stamp on, which is landscape work. Give me a crowded, noisy metropolis and I’m right at home, whereas I have to emotionally educate myself to be at ease in a natural setting. Sad, I know, but there it is. And so, I experiment a lot with seeing patterns in plants, trees, terrain, in terms of raw design, such as in the agave plant seen here. Another fortunate corollary was the acquisition of a camera, early in the year, that finally enabled me to shoot birds with greater precision, which allows the winged wonders to become something of a substitute for traditional portrait work on humans. As I learn to read their feathered faces, I am somewhat consoled, even as I miss their human equivalents.
And so it goes. Change life for the photographer, and you change the photographs. And since this little small-town gazette has always been about intentions, rather than equipment, it’s important for us to do a skull, at year’s end, on how we’ve changed the way we approach using the Magic Light Boxes in our lives. We are different people now, and, if we’re honest and awake, amazing pictures will come about as a result.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MAN’S FIRST MAJOR QUEST WAS THE SIMPLE EFFORT TO EMERGE FROM THE DARK; the darkness of his own ignorance; the shadows of isolation, the dimness of despair. Looking back, the discovery of fire was perhaps the single greatest forward leap in our early evolution. Once we could make light, we could channel many other of our other energies, with the idea of illumination governing every one of our creative urges, literally and metaphorically. Photography is but one very direct example of what happens when you learn to, as George Eastman termed it, “harness” light.
This year, in many deeply profound ways, we have all had to make almost daily choices between light and darkness, certainly in the dire life decisions fate has placed before us, but also in the things we choose to create. Making images of the holidays that are cheery and bright used to be the most instinctual thing for us; after all, we have had a lifetime of practice. But when the light from which we craft those pictures becomes endangered, when it comes horribly close to being extinguished altogether, that’s when our artistry must double down, digging deeper to extract as much brightness as we can. Many of us have managed it in unprecedented new ways; many more would be well to practice it a lot more in the tough months to come.
Some of that effort will come from inside our cameras.
I don’t consider this image to be negative, or pessimistic. I have made, and will continue to make, those wonderful postcard creations we all strive for in normal times. But art can instruct or lead, as well as charm, and as a consequence, this is the Christmas photograph I most want to sign my name to in this season. Making others safe is the best way to make ourselves safe, and delaying our immediate gratification is the best way to ensure that we’ll be around to, humanly, ask for even more of life, later on.
And so a Merry Christmas to all. We have spent nearly a year trying to get off Nature’s “naughty” list, and now we must do much better at getting off each other’s. If there’s anything to all that storied “good will toward men” stuff, we need to make it more manifest. And make pictures of it that not only document, but illuminate.
PAST SIGHTS AND OTHER BLIGHTS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
DURING MY CAREER IN RADIO, I lost count of how many times I heard people react to recordings of their voice with the remark, “that doesn’t even sound like me”. The statement is funny because it’s both true and false. As a series of stored electromagnetic signals that are a scientific record of sound, the tape certainly recreates the original noises we make: and yet our inner version of ourself seems distorted, as if we’re looking in a funhouse mirror. That can’t be us. Fact is, we’re often the world’s worst authority on what we are or are not, something that’s measured by the things we create.
Stay with me.
The current Great Hibernation that we’re all enduring is a great opportunity to clean house, to get to those dreaded “someday” lists that somehow always involve getting rid of things, of paring down. For photographers, this can involve finally curating old online images (not originals), a process which, like hearing our recorded voices, introduces us to versions of ourselves that we no longer recognize. Put enough distance between yourself and a picture you made a while ago and you can actually forget what it was about the thing that seemed a good idea at the time. And when you become estranged from an idea, it’s tough to love it enough to keep it around. Delete.
Of course, there are the other cases, in which you can clearly recall what you were after, and how, sadly, the result differs greatly from your “vision”. I don’t know which is worse, not recognizing your original intention or recognizing it all too well and wanting to distance yourself from it. Delete.
Some images are orphans. You posted them, you tagged them, you continued to love them, but no one else wanted to come to the party. “They” didn’t get it because….why? A million reasons. Whatever the missed connection was due to, these fatherless kiddos aren’t your best work. Delete.
There are also special circles of my own private hell for “lipstick on a pig” pictures. You know the ones. They’re inadequate or ill-conceived, but you are convinced that by torturing them into new versions of themselves with apps or software (see above, gulp), you can somehow make up for the fact that you blew the master image. That’s not just putting lipstick on a pig, that’s telling yourself that the pig is actually Sophia Loren. Delete.
There is actually an upside to this process. With all the chaff you will also review all the wheat, occasionally astonishing yourself at how lucky/persistent/prescient you were. This is truly an investment in hope, since, it stands to reason, if you could mine gold once, you might, just might be able to do it again. Taken in full, a healthy and brutal review of past sights and other blights is as valuable as going out today to shoot all new stuff. More valuable, actually, because everything you shoot today is a by-product of all the keepers and weepers that went before. Understanding who you were informs who you will be. And while it’s humbling to find that you’re not always perfect, it’s a genuine comfort to know that sometimes you ring the bell.
AGING IN THE BARREL
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOON WE WILL STOP REFERRING TO THE DAILY GLOBAL TOTAL OF SELF-PORTRAITS by any specific number, since the actual figure will be (a) impossible to ascertain and (b) so astronomical as to be meaningless. A quick shuffle through just our own collection of selfies for a given period gives us an idea what happens when technical ease meets runaway narcissism. Or to put it simpler, we take a $%#@-ton of pictures of us. We love us.
The current Great Hibernation (or Uber-Lockdown, or Mass-Incarceration or Panic-Room Marathon) is forcing us to spend even more time with our favorite person, and it stands to reason that the circumstances will change the way we decide to document what we are personally enduring. Here I am in the sixth week of my bad haircut. This is me in my formal sweatpants. I don’t know where I took this…or what time…or what day/week/month. Change the nature of a photographic subject and you’re bound to change how you’ll document that subject.
The whole social context has been warped out of shape, and so must our image of ourselves, which, after all, is shaped by how we interact, where we go, what constitutes a good or bad day. And so self-portraits are being forcibly filtered through a completely different set of criteria than they were just a heartbeat ago, when all we had to do to be somewhere else was, you know, go there. The way emotions play across our faces will be pretzeled into interesting new shapes as a consequence. As we age in this particular barrel, we will be changed. Some of us will emerge from it as palpably different from the animals that went in.
That creates challenge for photographers, especially when it’s us shooting us. How trustworthy are we as narrators? How aware of we of the subtle changes we undergo when the toilet paper runs low? The pictures will eventually provide the chronicle. But in the interim, we need to ask different questions, seek different angles, spot variances. Hey, we might as well be honest. The camera never lies, right?
FROM THE GENERAL TO THE SPECIFIC
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE GREAT HIBERNATION OF 2020 has done, in the ages of fragmented audiences and unlimited media choices, what prehistoric TV networks used to do all the time…that is, knit the country together with universally shared experiences. Back in the days of three or four channels, we all went through the same big events generally at the same time. Bereft of the time-shifting and endless repeat patterns of our present video age, the narrow range of viewing choices in those days gave people of a certain age a common cultural baseline. We tended to experience one official version of large things, from coronations to assassinations to the first earth orbit to the last episode of The Fugitive (which was watched by 78,000,000 viewers). Now the events that we all experience in real time, together is limited to the Super Bowl and a few nervous election nights. Everything else we view, well, when we choose to view it, if it’s not on a platform that we ignore altogether.
The global virus tragedy has come closer to give us a shared, real-time experience than almost anything else in the lifetime of people under fifty. And yet, through the medium of art and the journeys of our own personal struggles, we are filtering it into our memory in very distinctive ways, taking this titanic problem from the general to the specific. We all begin at the same starting point as the emergency first breaks, and then, we customize the ways we internalize it, with every conceivable form of expression: diaries: drawings: essays: cartoons: memes: movies….
Alone at home, I must comment on the crisis in ways that sustain my own sense of hope. Also in ways that use distance to help me hold onto my reason. Some of that is just my circumstantial lot: I will never be, for example, a photojournalist on the front lines of this battle. I may never even walk the deserted streets that have become the haunting visual signature of the story. Within the confines of my reduced living space, I have little in the way of photographic tools besides my imagination or whatever humor I can muster in the moment. Sometimes, as you see above, I come down on the side of whimsy. Other times things get so heavy I don’t know if I’m capable of making an image that faithfully records that. I guess I’ll find out.
The Great Hibernation has snapped many people of my age back to the memory of other globally shared events from years ago…some tragic and some magic. We are certainly fragmented as compared to those days, but the amazing outpouring of heroism and sacrifice that have marked our reaction to this horror….well, that feels like a bond, anyway. And perhaps the art that we use to chronicle our feelings, even if they are very individual emotions, can occasionally strike a universal chord. It’s worth a try.
WE ARE ALL WAR CORRESPONDENTS NOW
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I HAVE ALWAYS ARGUED THAT THE PRINCIPLE AIM OF PHOTOGRAPHY is twofold: firstly, to capture what is splendid in the world, celebrating the order of beauty, the majesty of nature, the grand talents of the enterprising soul: and, secondly, to point unflinchingly to what needs correction, to what challenges and threatens us. You can’t have life without both these drives, and you certainly can’t call photography an art if it doesn’t address them equally.
The world is at war at the moment. Our tragedies and losses in this conflict are not incurred by shells and bombs, but by the most primal forces in the natural world. For those who fall before this horror, the results are as final as if they had occurred during a bombardment or battle. The visual ways in which we measure our fear and dislocation are in some ways similar to those seen in regular wars. They are not symbolized by a single, terrible image, but by a million little pictures of very ordinary things, some of which we must put away for awhile as we arm our hearts for what is to come. In this very real way, every one of us that is armed with a camera becomes, in some sense, a war correspondent.
The image seen here is certainly not sinister in the true sense. It’s hard to summon a negative association with playground equipment. But that’s in peacetime.
During times of turmoil, the normal rhythms of life are not yanked away in one clean rip-of-the-bandaid jerk. Rather, they are eroded. Narrowed. You can only do your favorite thing on certain days, at certain hours, and under certain conditions, for the time being. Updates will be posted…
I sat before this scene for several moments before I could unpack why it upset me so. In personal terms, I had walked through the very same park several days prior. Nothing was different now, except…the tape. The word on the tape. And the implied message: this thing that typically gives you joy is now to be avoided. Normal is suspended.
In the short term, there will be many pictures that will break our hearts far more fundamentally than this one ever can. Images that will test our resolve. Touch off volatile emotions. This photo is nothing by comparison to what’s to come. And yet, it is part of the mosaic we are creating during this Great Hibernation (my gentle name for a horrific reality). Each tile in the mosaic is a story of some way that some part of the larger tragedy effected someone among us. I know that I, myself, will create other pictures that are far more jarring than this one. But, as always, it’s the little things that can have the biggest impact. Because when reality shifts, it happens one routine, or one playground, at a time.
DRESS REHEARSALS AND OPENING NIGHTS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
GREAT CITIES ARE NOT MUSEUMS, statically basking in their greatness as if showing off a finished product. Metropolises are as organic as the flesh and blood creatures they host, identified by their own signature breathing rhythms, seasons, vital signs. They are always in the process of becoming.
No city displays that work-in-progress ethos better than New York. It is always in dress rehearsal, while meanwhile always staging an opening night. Both the wrecking ball and the ribbon-cutting scissors are always ticking and tocking back and forth, opposite extremes of the same pendulum swing. It’s a constant thump/rest/thump/rest drum beat that, like its namesake, never sleeps. And that adds a stunning opportunity for showing contrasts in any kind of street photography.
NYC declares daily winners and losers, and since both its Newsmakers and the Yesterday’s News folks live cheek by jowl, images taken on Manhattan streets are almost guaranteed to show that juxtaposition. In the above image, the glitter of Times Square, easily the brassiest sector of the city, can easily be framed up alongside the ubiquitous “pipe” scaffolding that attends a million different renovations and remodels throughout the town. The city’s ongoing motto might well be, “hey we’re working on it”, as the undying American hunger for the new conducts a daily road race against eventual obsolescence. Photography is, primarily, built upon contrast, placing an infinite number of bright surfaces against an infinite number of darker ones, in intersections of light and shadow that define sharpness and focus. It seems proper, then, for the camera’s subject matter to define things through the comparison of opposites.
Of course, you needn’t live in Gotham to see such contrasts or to arrange them for maximum commentary effect in your images. The messages are everywhere, since it’s our essential diversity which makes photographs worth taking in the first place. As long as there is a palpable difference between this thing and that thing, compelling pictures will result. Everywhere, in every town, it’s always dress rehearsal, always opening night.
ACROSS THE MERIDIAN
By MICHAEL PERKINS
TIME, BEING A HUMAN CONSTRUCT (AND ESSENTIALLY AN ILLUSION) is one of those handy mind tricks we use to convince ourselves that we’re in charge. That we know how to plan, that we can bend events to our will, plot them out on a strategic map. Catch them in our camera boxes. It’s pure nonsense of course, just like stipulating that we all believe that green pieces of paper with dead presidents on them are of value. But as long as we’re all in on the joke, then…what?
Photographers are all about time, of course. Stealing it, freezing it, even trying to render it irrelevant. With a camera in hand, we dare to declare that time is what we say it is. Or isn’t. And on this day, billions of images will have been shot by breakfast in an effort to mark the act of crossing the meridian, the passing of one year into another (or, in this case, one decade into another). We feel some kind of biological urge to record what it was like/will be like. Snap. Here we are at the stroke of midnight, when one thing became another. Can you tell the difference? Can you show the difference in a frame? Time’s status as the Great Hoax doesn’t diminish its power. And so we click, and play.
What you see here is the attempt to imprison two years within a single image. I was struck, New Year’s Eve, by the contrast between my party-prone neighbors (they of the brightly lit trees to the left) and my own party-resistant nature (the quiet patio to the right), so much so that I thought the comparison of the two worlds was worth a picture. I set up the camera from my bedroom window and ran a few tests as the last hours of 2019 drained away, then tripped my remote timer in the final seconds of that dying year, so that the 43-second exposure would originate in one year and end in the next. Nothing much would change over the taking of the image, but I would know that I had crammed two years into one frame. Like time itself, a trick, an illusion. Turns out, that one year looks quite like another, with less to distinguish them than there is to distinguish my neighbor’s busy yard from my still one. There wasn’t so much as a fleeting firecracker light trail to betray the secret that I had taken a picture of time travel. Just the strange fable in my head. Just as it’s always been.
Happy New Year. Happy Wise Year. Happy Humble Year. Happy Whatever You Need It To Be Year. I hope we can tell a difference between the time we think we’ve lost and the time we think we have.
And here, again, is to the sweet and mad miracle of imprisoning magic in a box.
FINDING THE RIGHT FACE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
HISTORY DOES NOT HAPPEN WITHIN THE STORMY SURGE OF A CROWD, but with the quiet, agonized turning of individual hearts. One heart at a time, that’s how the world is turned…..or overturned.
Protests and demonstrations are a natural magnet for photographers. They appeal to the journalist in all of us, as street photography meets street theatre in a roiling mix that maybe, just, maybe will allow us to trap history inside our magical boxes. Thing is, certain surface elements of marches and public gatherings are dismayingly uniform: the sea of signs, the crush of bodies, the speaker’s rostrum….and masses of angry/jubilant faces. Photographers realize that world-changing events are really about faces, more than any other visual element. We look for features that record the raw essence of those events: pity, fear, exhilaration, relief, anger. Finding the right face within a mass gathering is the toughest assignment for anyone hoping to use a camera to record the over-large mash-up of sensations within a movement. A solid wall of people with signs isn’t the real story: what brought individuals to the site is the only message that can be trusted. You must fan past the mass of noise to find the quiet at the center.
You need not pick a side in a struggle to record what it costs people to invest their energy in having picked one themselves. The woman seen here, standing near an improvised speaker’s platform, may never have seen herself as a force to change the world. She is not triumphant: she is not a bomb-hurler: she doesn’t share in the giddy me-tooism of youth: she may actually wish she were somewhere else, even as something has told her she must be only here, right now. The parade/protest will rage on in big waves of zeal, but her emotion, at least in this moment, is not one of celebration. She is not having a good time. But written in her apprehension is something universal, eternal.
The human race seems, age after age, to be in search of the same basic things. The drama in our lives is defined by the path we choose to reach those things. And all of our quests force their way up into our features. Our faces betray what path we’re on, and why. There is no wisdom in the mob, unless it is in the wisdom of one face after another, all of whom, on the same day, strangely found themselves standing in the same spot.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE RIGHTLY ACCUSED, from time to time, of trying too hard to capture every key moment of life. Part of that drive can certainly be written off to the pursuit of any obsessive-compulsive hobby, from stamp collecting to Elvis paraphernalia. But some of it is driven by the haunted regrets that involve the pictures that we didn’t, and now never can, take.
I got a sad reminder of that this week. Because a friend of mine died. And somehow, I, the perpetual pest with a camera (in the estimation of my entire social circle, and beyond) never managed, in the seven years of that friendship, to take his picture even once. The hollow feeling that has accompanied that realization over the past few days is twice as painful, since this is not the first time this has happened. No, I can actually count a small crowd of people who have moved into important rooms in the house of my life, then packed and left without my having so much as a snapshot to remember them by. What does this say about me, and how I see my relationships with people?
Since my children have grown to adults and launched their own lives, I have seldom had subjects that have justified the feverish shower of photos that once defined my active parenting years. There are grandchildren now, but, compared to the torrent of images taken of them (and shared with me) by other family members, I see my own yield of personally shot pictures as a paltry pile. Now ask me how many images I’ve made of skyscrapers. Ouch.
And now another friend is gone, destined to live only in my memory, the way almost everyone was remembered by almost everybody before the invention of the camera. Surely my reminiscences of the most important people in my life are stronger, more personal, than any photograph I might create of any one of them, right? Or would a picture be the best tribute to those no longer here, a true measure, at least in light and dimensions, of what they were actually like? Or, further, do I just believe that even my best work might fall short of their best essence, and simply dodge the daunting task of documenting them in a physical way?
Friendships, at least the good ones, are like our notion of our very own lives, in that they seem to be destined to go on forever. Until they don’t. At this point in the game, I’m fast approaching a world populated largely by ghosts of adventures long past. A mere two-dimensional record of those who are gone is probably a sorry substitute for the detail of memory, except, of course, that memory itself will eventually corrode and go brown around the edges. Maybe the real reason to make a photograph of someone is the same reason a jazz musician creates an improvisation, in the moment, on a familiar tune. We are celebrating the now, interpreting this person’s impact on us right now. It’s be funny to learn that images are not so much about preserving people forever as they are emotional reactions to where they are for you while they are still here. Maybe our pictures don’t preserve anything about those people except how much we loved them. That’s not enough to show from the so many lives in our life. But it’s something.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
“DO YOU KNOW THAT PERSON?”
If you’ve ever even dipped your little toe into street photography, chances are that you have fielded that question from somebody, right after they encounter an unfamiliar face among your pictures. Further, should you answer in the negative, you’re liable to be met with a quizzical look, as if the person were asking, “then why in the world would you take their picture?” Strangely, the answer isn’t that complicated: it’s because that face is at least as interesting, as full of mystery and misery and joy, as the face of any of my “tribe”: a face, in short, worth a picture.
Of course, the majority of faces we record with cameras are those that we know and cherish. But every face on the planet has the same potential to be treasured as every other face, since all record the same conflicts and aspirations. The features found in our own social circle are not exclusively magical: they don’t portray dramas or dreams that are peculiar to us alone. The “others” are just “us” with some of the information missing. The information that begins being amplified the moment the shutter clicks.
Street photography is a second cousin to journalism in one very key respect, in that both kinds of images endeavor to take us from the particular to the general, showing us faces that react the way we might react to a given stimulus, be it a celebration, a war, a comedy, or a tragedy. We are led by the best of these images from the very specific reaction of one person we don’t know to a general shared human feeling we all recognize. Magazines, televised news reports, documentaries all remind us of the feelings we all hold in common. And yet, when an unknown face invades a batch of pictures that we regard as “relevant” someone is bound to sneer that the photographer ” always takes pictures of complete strangers”, as if there could be such a thing. In the case of the woman seen above, with whom I had the great accidental luck to share a bench in a museum, I see a symphony of short stories, mixed and remixed every time I come back to the image. I will never be her intimate friend in the standard sense of the word, but, in another sense, we are communicating with each other on a very special level.
At minimum, once a photograph is made of a face, the person to whom it belongs can never again be a “complete stranger”. At most, he or she could be an “incomplete” stranger, with the strangeness of a good candid portrait ebbing away with each additional viewing. Like the reporter or journalist, the street photographer is finding the unguarded moment, the unanticipated event, the unforeseen result. And that humanness is universal, immediate in its cognitive effect. We know these people.
We are these people.
WAITING IN THE WINGS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHS ARE DOCUMENTS THAT ARE SHAPED BY PERFORMANCES. That sentence, at this point in history, seems so obvious that it seems superfluous to even state. But it wasn’t always seen that way.
The camera, at its creation, was feared and reviled as the very opposite of an art instrument, characterized as a soulless machine that recorded without seeing, without interpreting. Whereas the painter filtered the world through the experiences and emotions coursing through his heart and mind, the photographer just held a box, and the box merely measured light. The box was seen as a cold, lifeless thing could never render a breathing, living world. Could it?
But the box, it turned out, was never merely held, never just pointed, and its eye never merely etched data on a plate. How it was held, what it was pointed at made a crucial, measurable difference. What it framed and what it excluded made other differences. And then there was the eye of the thing. Turned out, even that glassy orb could, in time, be adjusted, made more sensitive, more attentive. In fact, photography was becoming, after the science was scoped out, a performer’s medium, no less than a person holding an instrument called a paintbrush, or striking an instrument called a piano. There was an expectation, an anxiety involved in the act, a desire to get it right. Each single photograph was subtlely different from all others, and the difference was in the nature of the performance.
I go through this meditation (or one like it) whenever I am on the eve of tackling a photographic subject that has eluded me for a long period of time. As you read this, I’m only days away from making a pilgrimage of sorts to such a subject, something that will be hard to re-visit in the future, and for which a lot of very fast, do-or-die decisions will be made in the moment. Well, do-or-die is a little dramatic: there is, after all, nothing really important on the line here. The subject matter doesn’t involve a breaking news event, nor will my success or failure in bringing back the pictures I want have any impact on life as we know it.
I just want to get it right.
The image seen here is of an access gate that is as close as I have ever gotten to my subject in the past. It is also the least beautiful feature of said subject, hence my annoying case of nerves.
My anxiety, though truly laughable/pathetic, accompanies things that I care about, and maybe that’s a good definition of art….an attempt to make sense of the things we care about. Just pointing a box cannot produce that feeling. But photography has never really been about the box, has it?
ON GOING TOWARD THE LIGHT
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MOST DAYS, MAKING PICTURES IS A LABOR OF LOVE.
On a few days, however, it’s just….labor.
Just as it’s harder, on occasion, to manage a radiant smile for everyone you meet, there are days when photography can, for a short while, become a chore. Homework. I can’t speak for anyone but myself here, but, as I experience it, making pictures is a deliberate mutiny against the forces of despair. And while despair itself seems never to weaken or abate, my own armor against it can occasionally buckle or crack. That’s when pointing a camera at anything can seem, just for a time, to be a worthless exercise, something too frivolous to be of value in a world that seems bent on ugliness.
Thankfully, I eventually recall that making pictures, at least for me (standard disclaimer), is an act of faith. Faith that the world will continue. Faith that there are things within it that ought to be praised, sung, celebrated. In returning to the role of photographer, I also return to a new sense of what kind of photographer I am, and must generally be. I can’t fixate on the horrible, although sometimes my pictures will show traces of it. I can’t marinate in misery, or use my images to do so. I have to seek beauty, and not just the cute-kitty or pretty-flower varieties. It’s a careful balance. My work is biased toward the affirmation of things, and yet I do acknowledge that some things and some people in life are, simply, no damned good. But beauty isn’t a denial of ugliness. It’s an answer to it. An alternative. And on different days there will be different ways to fight that fight.
Photography came into my life as a kind of magic trick, as something so amazing on its face that I felt drawn to learn something about how the trick was done. Having passed that purely technical point, I now see it as perhaps the most important tool available to me in trying to craft a world I long for, as important in its way as my writing or music or graphic work has always been. It gives me a distinct voice. Other times it just gives me an extra eye, or opens the two I already possess. And while there will always be times when we all think the most intelligent response to life is to shut all the doors and windows, we will, eventually, recall that making pictures is about opening those things back up…..and that a house full of light is one hell of a lot easier to live in.
FROM HERE TO THERE EVENTUALLY
We are all in this alone. We are all in this together.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN THE HALTING EARLY DAYS OF PHOTOGRAPHY, the only thing balkier than the making of an image was in getting one’s work seen outside the artist’s personal social circle. Several dozen technical revolutions later, we take real-time distribution networks for granted, accustomed to a reality with literally no time lag between the generation of a picture and its dissemination to the world at large. Click, it exists. Click Click, it’s published. That is now the rhythm of a photograph. It’s ours, and everybody’s, in the same instant .
That immediacy has proven to be of incredible value in our most recent Great Hibernation, as a virtual way of compensating for the shrinking of our material worlds. Early 19th-century photographs were initially stunted in their impact on society, since they had to overcome the obstacles of space and time to reach mass audiences. A picture made in one place had to be physically shipped or transported to the few centers from which it could be faithfully reproduced and effectively shared. A lockdown of the entire world in such a time would have corraled art into small local sectors of influence, whereas Covid-19 internees have lost nothing in the options for connecting their visions with the entire globe at a keystroke. Thus our literal isolation has a kind of modern-day antidote, in that our art can travel where we cannot. And so, in terms of images, two opposing statements are nonetheless equally true: we are all going through this alone, and we are all going through this together.
Photographs have indeed proven the great storytellers in this weird, weird banishment. In the years ahead, volumes will be written on the psychic and emotional damage suffered by those who will have survived these times. That damage is real, and will probably be long-lasting for some. But, in what must be one of the most bizarre sources of comfort possible, it’s hard to imagine how much worse the isolation would have been in an earlier time, a time when going it alone also meant not being able to release a little carrier pigeon of wonderment or hope via our poetry, our wonderings, or our pictures. Can a camera save one’s sanity? Not literally, of course. However, the time-honored thrill of being able to simply shout across a canyon and get an answer back has a modern analog, and sometimes that echo comes in the form of an image.
March 17, 2021 | Categories: Commentary, Journalism, Viewpoint | Tags: editorial photography | Leave a comment