the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Commentary

GONE GATEWAYS

Ticket Kiosk (Ohio Theatre, Columbus, Ohio, opened 1926)

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE TRAINED TO REACT QUICKLY, the better to keep crucial moments from perishing unpreserved. We generally teach ourselves to measure, within an instant, what is fleeting and what deserves to be preserved. But there are times when important things actually disappear slowly, over years or decades, giving us a more generous window of time to record their passing. Cities, for example, don’t burst forth, grow, and die with the speed of mayflowers. They fade gradually, shedding their traditions and signature traits in a slow-motion oblivion that allows us to linger a little longer over the proper way for our cameras to say goodbye.

It’s the quotidian, the shared ordinary, in our world that is peeled off with the least notice. The boxy computers that give way to sleek tablets: the percolator that becomes the coffee maker: the paper billboard that morphs into the animated LED: or the movie theatre that changes from elegant palace to stark box to streaming video. All such passages are marked by physical transformations that the photographer’s eye tracks. The ornate gives way to the streamlined, function revising fashion in distinct visual cues.

The grand ticket kiosk seen here, which still graces the 1926 Ohio Theatre in Columbus, is now part of a vanished world: we don’t associate its details with elegance or “class” anymore. We don’t look to dedign elements of the old world to frame the new, as we did in the age of the flapper and the flivver. Images made of these disappearing gateways are poignant to the old and bizarre time machines for the young.

Most importantly, images are records. Once the familiar becomes the antique, our own memories suffer dropouts, missing bits of visual data that the camera can retrieve. Thus the making a picture is more than mere memory…it’s the logging of legacy as well.

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ALL THERE IN BLACK AND WHITE(?)

By MICHAEL PERKINS

YOUR CONCEPT OF “STREET” PHOTOGRAPHY, assuming it interests you at all,  is shaped by a variety of influences, including your idea of appropriate subject matter, biases in style or equipment, even your technical limits. But from my own particular perch, I think that the era into which I was born may be one of the strongest determinants of my preferences in street work, at least when it comes to the choice between black and white and color. To me, this kind of reportorial photography is vastly different either side of a key time line, with one side, say the world up to about 1955, weighted toward monochrome, and the other, the years that follow that mark and track forward up to the present day, being the more “color” era.

Before the mid-50’s, nearly all “important” photography was still being rendered in monochrome, much of it of a journalistic or editorial nature. From the crash of the Hindenburg to the New Deal’s chronicling of the impact of the Great Depression through endless newsreel and magazine essays, the pictures of record, of the stuff that mattered, was black and white. Consumer photography generally followed suit. Early color films were available from the 1930’s on, but the overarching curve of Everyman hobbyist work did not immediately flip to general use. Color was largely for commercial work, for selling things in a hyper-saturated advertising spread or brochure. Seminal black and white essays like Robert Frank’s The Americans or Henri Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment seemed to reinforce the idea of monochrome as the messenger of realism, authenticity, grit. Ugly, sad, tragic, important things happened in black and white. Color was for kids’ parties.

What “color” is your reality?

 

By the 1960’s, faster consumer color films changed candid photography virtually overnight as amateurs opted for more “lifelike” images. Color print, slide and movie film sales soared, and, while magazine and newspaper “documentarians” continued to emphasize mono as the “official” tonal language of street work, younger photographers began to reframe the argument as to what constituted a fit format for commentary. In the present day, both approaches live comfortably side by side, and many shooters are not exclusively in the ‘either” or “or” camp, deciding one frame at a time whether a narrow or wide palette is right for a given image. Even the shooters who embraced color as young photographers may, today, toggle back to monochrome for a singular impact or even a nostalgic evocation of the past. Fashion historians can easily lose count: we’ve zoomed past ironic, post-ironic, post-post-ironic, and back to innocence again, spinning through both unconscious and super-self-conscious styles like the blades of a pinwheel. Beneficiaries of technologies that abett and invite multiple ways to rendering the same subject, we shoot in all eras and influences at once. Everything about photography is a la carte.

For me, black and white isn’t a signature, but then again, neither is color. I find them both adequate for the candid work that encompasses “street”, and I reserve the right to make the choice between the two at a moment’s notice. Tonal properties, after all, should be as improvisational as the decision to make a given picture. We are freer than ever to worry less about the how of a photograph, and focus on the why.

 


I’M NOT WHAT I USED TO BE (AND I FEEL FINE)

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I OFTEN FEEL THAT HABIT IS THE GREATEST POTENTIAL THREAT to the creative process. Once an artist approaches a new project through the comfort of his accumulated routines, he’s well on the road to mediocrity. If you find yourself saying things like “I always do” or “I typically use”…. you’re saying, in effect, that you’ve learned everything you need to learn in terms of your art. You already have all the ingredients for success. The ideal exposure. The perfect lens. The optimum technique. The Lost Ark…

Dangerous business.

And, if a kind of self-satisfied inertia is death-on-toast for artistic growth, then the most valuable tool in a photographer’s goodie bag is the ability to archive and curate his own work…..to keep a solid, traceable time line that clearly shows the evolution of his approach…..including the degree to which that approach has either moved along or stood still. That means not only hanging on to many of your worst pictures but also re-evaluating your best ones…..since your first judgement calls on both kinds of images will often be subject to change. Certainly there are photographs that are so clearly wonderful or wretched that your opinion of them won’t change over time. But they constitute the minority of your work. Everything in that vast middle ground between agony and ecstasy is a rich source of self-re-evaluation.

Revisiting old shoots doesn’t always yield hidden treasures. Sometimes the shot you thought was best from a certain day was best. But there may be only a hair’s-breadth of difference between the winners and the also-rans, and, at least in my own experience, the also-rans are where all the education is. For example, in the image seen here of my wife taken almost ten years ago and re-examined recently, I know two new things: first, I now know precisely why, at the time, I thought it was the worst of a ten-frame burst. Second, at this stage, I realize that it’s actually a lot closer to what I currently find essential about Marian’s face than the shot I formerly regarded as the “keeper”. I’m just that different in under a decade.

As you grow as a photographer, you will revise nearly every “must” or “never” in your belief system, from composition to focus and beyond. As life molds you, it will likewise mold the ways you see and comment on that life. An archive of your work, warts and all, is the most valuable resource you can consult to trace that journey, and it will nourish and inform every picture you make from here on.

 

 

 


FEARFUL URGENCIES

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHS STOP BEING “REALITY” mere seconds after their creation, in that the truths they record have, in every sense, moved on, on their way to becoming a million other versions of themselves. We treasure our fragile little time thefts, those frozen testimonies to what some thing in the world looked like at some time. In this way, every photograph is a souvenir, an after-image of something lost.

Bee The Flower, 2019

It’s small wonder that photographers often experience a sense of fearful urgency, a hurry-up-and-preserve-it fever bent on chronicling a world that is borning and dying at the same time. It’s hard sometimes not to think of everything as precious or picture-worthy. The beginnings of things are essential, because they cannot last. Vanishings are important because they are so final. Even an image of a person who is still living bears a poignancy…..because it was taken Before The War, When Mamma Was Alive, When We Still Lived Across Town.

And when it comes to the natural world, photographers and non-photographers alike are ever more aware that they may be capturing, for whatever reason, the lasts of things. Species. Coastlines. Remnants of a world whose regular timeline of goodbyes has been accelerated. Photographers always have a mission to immortalize the comings and goings most central to their own lives, and that’s understandably their primary emphasis. But the natural world will also press us to be reporters in a more general sense. As one reality passes away and others begin, our sense of what is real may come down to the images we make as life careens ever on.

 

 


MY WHITE WHALE

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PERHAPS THE GREATEST SINGLE MOTIVATOR, FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS, is the eternal attempt to narrow the gap between what is seen and what can be shown, a permanent sense of one’s pictures coming up short, doomed to mere actuality versus the grand visions dancing in our heads. We shoot, we lament having “missed it”, and we shoot again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I’ve written before, here, on the most frustrating, if tantalizing, subjects within that overall challenge….scenes or objects that we are free to repeatedly, endlessly re-shoot in hopes of “getting it right”, chasing the same things year after year, camera after camera, lens after lens, like Ahab chasing the White Whale round the world’s oceans.

These inexhaustible things are usually a staple of our immediate environment, part of our daily drives or walks, our standard routines. The maddening thing is that such hyper-familiar things should, eventually, submit to our art, should finally be captured in some final, completed fashion. But, in many cases, they remain studies, rehearsals, sketches. Unfinished business.

The tree you see here is one of my personal White Whales. I must drive past it at least five times a week, mostly in a quick glimpse out the window of my car. I have seen it in every season, every type of light, every mood filter within my own head. I have thrilled as it billowed to its fullest flower and mourned when groundskeepers judged it too wild and rangy, pruning it in ways that threaten, for a time, to obliterate the tree’s identity. I have parked and stepped over to pay it closer tribute with this lens or that, shooting full-on, in macro mode along trunk grain or branch lines, in fisheye, sharp detail, selective focus, monochrome and color. Each rendition gives me something; no one image delivers all.

Your particular tree (or house, or face, or river, or..) can both energize and enervate your photography. Even your failures can be seen as a prelude to inevitable success, as rehearsals toward a final, finessed performance. That feeling of being on a conveyor belt to Paradise is the essence of art, with the journey teasing us that there is, actually, a destination. If you have no White Whale of your own, I recommend heading out to sea, and scanning the horizon until you see one spout. Then grab a camera and try to tell someone about it.


IT’S BEGINNING TO LOOK a little LIKE CHRISTMAS

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE VERY PUBLIC, WONDERFULLY ELEGANT expressions of holiday spirit we all share in common, dripping in lights and bursting with sentiment, are measures of how we might observe an “ideal” season, perfect in execution, it’s every detail wonderfully balanced between love, memory and mystery. But the Christmases that we craft with what’s on hand, either emotionally or financially……well, that’s another thing entirely.

The holidays we piece together one lonely candle, one sad string of lights at a time, are worth seeking with your camera, no less than the forty-story firs in the public square. Stationed wherever we happen to wind up, cadging together makeshift moments from inside a barracks, in the last dark apartment down the hall, we “make do”,  but we also re-make ourselves. We drill down to what’s essential. And pictures of those tiny acts of enchantment are worth discovering.

One of the most poignant moments, among many, in Dickens’ Christmas Carol describes the humble holiday preparations of the family of Scrooge’s impoverished clerk, Bob Cratchit, modest rituals that, over time, have rung truer than all the grand and glorious galas trotted out each season by the more fortunate. Bob’s wife is described as “dressed out but poorly in a twice-turned (re-re-hemmed) gown, but brave in ribbons, which are cheap and make a goodly show for sixpence…”,  This sentence has remained burned into my brain since I first read it more than half a century ago. Brave in ribbons. The quiet, persistent dignity of that woman has, for me,  symbolized the season more than all the lights and garlands on the earth.

When What To My Wondering Eyes Should Appear, 2018

In the years since that first reading, I have tried to train my photographer’s eye to look beyond the big and loud of Christmas to find the small and soft iterations of the holiday, those places where its spirit must inch its way skyward like a wildflower  struggling through a crack in the sidewalk. I see some amazing testaments to human survival in the modest windows and tiny yards where many a loving remembrance resides.

Some, as in the case of the picture seen here, are observed at the backsides of alleys, eight stories up in a parking garage, overlooked, unsung. But sing them we should, and picture them we must. Oversized dreams in department store windows are seductive, to be sure, a visual ode to If Only. But down here on the ground, where most Christmases are crafted, a lot more must be supplied by dint of imagination and dreams. Here, closer to the human heart, we learn to ignore our tattered hems, and to be brave in ribbons.

 

 


EXTRA, EXTRA

BY MICHAEL PERKINS

WHEN THEATRICAL NEWSREELS GASPED THEIR LAST in the late 1960’s, they took with them a set of global habits for receiving visual information that had been in place since World War One, including the regular ritual of filing into theatres twice a week to see fast-moving digests of wars bulletins, scientific advancements, sports highlights, and current fads and foibles. Daily news, prior to the arrival of television, was dominated by newspapers and radio, with newsreels providing a secondary, visual record of world events. Then, nearly seven decades into the tradition, they vanished, and with them, something of the world that produced them.

Several newspaper chains produced newsreel versions of their most photogenic stories, and major film studios, including Fox, MGM, and Warner Brothers, all of which had divisions devoted exclusively to the making of so-called “short subjects”, likewise had newsreel crews within those departments. Better yet, all the studios owned and operated their own chains of theatres, guaranteeing a regular flow of distribution for their products. The public came to expect newsreels as a part of a larger theatrical program which included cartoons, two-reel comedies (hello, Three Stooges) and two full feature films……all for less than a dollar.

Even though the newsreels, unlike the video newscasts that succeeded them, had only one or two “deadlines” per week, they still had to create a slickly coordinated system for getting stories to the local Bijou before the items got too stale. A network of local photographers was paired with a shipping regimen designed to send raw footage to centralized hub studios, where it could be processed, edited, scored, and in selected cases, dubbed for foreign release. The instructions on the shipping case seen here clearly spell out the urgency of time (valueless if delayed!). This particular box belonged to the Hearst chain’s News Of The Day, which competed for eyeballs  in a crowded field that included The March Of Time, Universal Newsreel, Fox Movietone News, and the British Gaumont Graphic, among others.

Hearst and Universal amazingly produced newsreels until 1967, the same year that the Beatles issued Sgt. Pepper. By that time, the news had become a daily appointment telecast at home instead of a bi-weekly trot to the cinema. But even in their death throes the newsreels gave the world one more great story, with many libraries inheriting the complete archives of the once-vital features, now used as a twenty-first century research resource for every major event of the twentieth.


THE SNARE OF CHEAP REWARD

By MICHAEL PERKINS

SOCIAL NETWORKS HAVE PRODUCED TWO PROFOUND EFFECTS in the world of photography, one essentially beneficial, one essentially harmful. Certainly the ease with which photographs are instantly publishable on every conceivable distribution platform is a boon to communication and art. In one sense, every photographer has the potential to have his/her work seen: the world is now a gallery. However, that very same effortless global forum has the potential to flood the world with images that are ill-conceived, trite, lazy, or just plain banal. The world’s shooters are fully woke, for sure, but the world’s editors have joined the ranks of Rip Van Winkle.

Photographers before the web era were hemmed in by more stringent parameters of quality than is typical of the digital age. In professional circles, editors rejected 90% of a shooter’s work to select the small number of shots that would pass through the narrow neck of available publication platforms. At the same time, cost and technical barriers kept the total number of people who could even be photographers artificially low. The result was an exclusive club limited to only the best people and their best work.

As for the amateur market, people’s good and bad personal pictures had no practical publication platform beyond albums, slide trays and shoeboxes. Good and bad pictures alike seldom traveled beyond one’s own inner circle. Now consider the present landscape: no picture needs remain private or unpublished. Taking pictures is cheap, fast, and technically effortless, as is the kick of instant gratification as we click to make our images the world’s instantaneous and universal property. Equally fast counter-clicks deliver the drug of instant approval through reflexive “likes”, keeping us addicted to the entire feedback loop.

However, just making pictures available does not guarantee that anyone will actually see them. In fact, much of what we’e done on social media is create a vast dumping ground for nearly everything we shoot, a belt of data bits girding the earth like an orbiting loop of space garbage. Art is not improved merely through the generation of tonnage. More is usually less, and even our best work may be hidden in plain sight.

The lifelong perfecting of our own seeing eye, along with a fiercely developed and objective editor’s sensibility, is the only thing that can produce great photographs in an age where excellence and mediocrity are rewarded exactly the same. Social media will continue to snare us with the promise of cheap reward regardless of the quality of our work. The only cure for this slouching toward sloppiness is in ourselves. We need to love ourselves a lot less and love true excellence a lot more.


DUST IN THE WIND

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ENVY, WHILE A COMPLETELY UNDERSTANDABLE HUMAN EMOTION, has only occasionally helped me advance as a photographer. Eating one’s heart out over someone else’s talent is, at best, a kind of sweet misery, but there are a few instances in which it’s almost a pleasure to look upon another person’s work and know that you’ll never approach that level of mastery.

For me, that juicy jealousy has always been reserved for the legendary output of the Farm Security Administration, the New Deal program charged with chronicling the nationwide impact of the Great Depression of the 1930’s, the idea being that you couldn’t marshall public action against a problem people couldn’t see. The titanic FSA archive, containing more than 175,000 negatives, capitalized on the emerging 35mm film format and the country’s then-ubiquitous photo news magazines to produce images which were both objective reportage and so-called “street” photography. There is simply no comparable project in the history of the medium.

So, again, my own work, as previously confessed, is a admixture of envy and admiration. I can never take a crack at creating a narrative for the Dust Bowl or the great Oakie migration, but I can create an “homage” to those who did. You know how this works. When you get caught aping someone else’s technique, that’s “theft”. When you out yourself for doing the very same thing,  it’s an “homage”. Soooooo…

The master shot of the above image was taken out the window of an Amtrak train winding its way between Portland and Eugene, Oregon, about ten days ago. I was struck by the visual isolation of the farm structures and the profound emptiness of the surrounding fields. The antique feel and texture of the finished product was supplied by the Hipstamatic app, the whole deal created completely in-camera on an iPhone, which is, to our era, what the Leica was to the FSA’s journeyman shooters….that is, the tool at hand. I can’t honestly chronicle the events of that time…..but I can render an echo of their feeling.

Some seventy-five years have passed since the Roosevelt administration sent a small army of shutterbugs across the country to live among those whose lives had been shattered by the Crash, to record what they were trying to do to restore equilibrium to a world that had run into a ditch. I will never be able to do that exact work. Still, I hope I can bring rigor to the challenges that my own time have placed before me. Sometimes, the two eras seem uncomfortably close, as if some very old dust were blowing up into a new storm…..

 


WRITING THE FINAL CHAPTERS

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

SAXOPHONIST PAUL DESMOND, asked the “how’s it going?” question during his many years with the Dave Brubeck Quartet, frequently answered, “we’re making music like it’s going out of style….which, of course, it is.” A glib answer, certainly, but no less accurate for being so. Everything, everywhere, is, indeed, always going out of style. Photographers feel the rhythm of a clock that is synched to all of existence. We raise constantly against that unheard tick, extracting and freezing moments to testify that, yes, the world was this way.

But the clock is now ticking off not only the passing of things within the world, but, plausibly, the very world itself. The planet is straining at its physical limits, veering toward the voiding of The Big Warranty. And while can all rattle our gums about where all this change will eventually lead, photographers have an obligation to record where it has already made itself known. In shrinking ice shelves. Rising seas. Searing summers. Vanishing species. Storms without mercy and without end.

From my viewpoint, in the American southwest, the seasons pass into years and the years pass into decades with record-setting drought as the only constant. Reservoirs become ditches. Temperatures start to resemble good IQ scores. And in the above image, shot about an hour south of Tucson, Arizona, the bed of the San Pedro River is a cracked plain, a parched memory, a ghost.

In marking these monumental shifts, photography is both eloquent and neutral. The camera doesn’t care how we got to this place, nor does it assign a name to the blame. That kind of storytelling falls to wiser minds. But in a visual medium like ours, a tale can be told just by declaring “this is.This happened.” Politics and science can arm-wrestle about the details and the destiny. Pictures go beyond that noise. They are eloquent beyond words.

One thing is certain. Whether we are reporting the latest chapters of the human story or the final ones, photography is testimony. And we are all witnesses.


HOW TERRIBLY STRANGE…..

By MICHAEL PERKINS

SOME IMAGES REQUIRE NO WORDS. At least that’s the standard we aim for.

Many others may or may not benefit from what I call accompaniment. Sometimes a few words act as a sort of period at the end of a photographic “sentence”. Other times, a pre-existing sentiment….literary, musical, poetic…. seems somehow to have been just waiting for a picture with which to pair up.

I shot this picture of two longtime pals in just a second, but for two weeks after that, my mind kept looping back to 1968, and the words of a then-young songsmith who found it a real mind stretch to picture himself at the opposite end of his life. And, most likely, many other baby-boomers who read those lyrics, from the Simon & Garfunkel Bookends album of fifty years ago, tried to make the same mental leap. In 2018,  those of us lucky enough to have made that journey to “the other side”, living out those dreams of dotage, may be, even now, able to recall that young writer’s words at will:

*****************

Old Friends / old friends / sat on their park bench like bookends

A newspaper blown through the grass falls on the round toes/ of the high shoes

Of the old friends

Old friends / winter companions, the old men

Lost in their overcoats / waiting for the sunset

The sounds of the city sifting through trees settle like dust on the shoulders

Of the old friends

 

Can you imagine usyears from today, sharing a park bench quietly?

How terribly strange to be seventy……

************

(c) 1968 Paul Simon

Here’s to songs that are worth a thousand pictures, and to pictures that try to return the favor….


WE NEVER CLOSE

 

11:30pm, Queens, New York.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE DEMIMONDE. The night shift. The third trick. Up with the dawn. Done for the night.

At any given time, some of us are starting our days and heading to work while others are wrapping up their labors and stumbling into bed. Our nights are others’ days, our bustle others’ quiet time. We come at life on the planet from different directions, our suns and moons meeting at the time clock. Wait till coffee break, say some. That’s when things really get going. Hang around till after midnight, say the rest. That’s when this place really start to happen.

Time really comes unmoored in the cities, where our deliveries, destinies and dreams are on all kinds of stop/start cycles. The big town is as photographically alive for the night owls as for the morning glories. People whose days are other people’s nights are forever exotic and strange to each other, the images of their routines as mutually mysterious as the extremes of heat and cold. And always, the same underlying drum beat: got things to do. No day or night, pal: things get done when they get done.

The camera never sleeps because we never close. Open seven days a week, open all night. Last train at midnight, early bird special, full price after six, in by 9, out by 5. Rules of engagement for the breakfast surge, the lunch rush, the dinner crowd. Lives in motion. Pistons rising and falling. Disharmony and sweet accord.

The shutters keep blinking. The moments keep rolling.

24/7.

 


NOTHING IS EVERYTHING

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THERE HAVE DEFINITELY BEEN TIMES IN MY LIFE when I have actually craved the special kind of loneliness that Arizona has in abundance. This is a place where brain-boggling chasms of space can exist between society and desolation, between boom and bust. The contrast is stark with a capital, well, stark. If you want to get lost, I mean good and lost, like vanished-off-the-freaking-map lost, Arizona’s vast, starched plains and heat-blasted mesquite are your solution. Other times there is such a sharp edge between lots of something and all kinds of nothing that you can almost feel despair chewing around the edges of your contentment like a termite on a bender.

Photographically, you can either celebrate Arizona’s chest-thumping pride in the survival of the individual or lament the sense of isolation underscored by its lunar landscapes….or both. An image that thrills one person with a sensation of unfettered freedom can make another individual feel like the state has abandoned him or her by the side of a dusty road to no place.

In the case of the above image, it could go either way. The buildings here do not constitute the entire business district of downtown Cottonwood, Arizona, but they’re damned close. One thing that’s absolutely true is that there isn’t much on either side of the town’s main stem that feels…townlike. Yes, the municipality has a few small supporting streets, peppered with a smattering of residences and small shops, but Cottonwood is essentially a brief, linear dash in the middle of an endless paragraph about emptiness. To some shooters, (sometimes me) this is an enlistment poster for personal liberty, with the land always having the last say in any discussion. For others (again, sometimes me), it’s a reminder that, in a face-off between man and the West, the West has a decided, even unfair edge. Showing both of these stories within a single picture, however, isn’t necessarily a conflict in terms.

Photography addresses extremes, and often in a frustratingly ambiguous fashion. But show me an art where that doesn’t happen.


“LIKE”-MINDEDNESS

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ONE OF THE MOST INTERESTING THINGS about reading photographer’s discussions of their most celebrated work is that, frequently, they can only guess at what accounts for the success of one of their images over another. Even more fascinating is when they express their dismay that some of their personal favorites actually fail to connect with the public. I take heart at such accounts, because I, like many of you, have no idea what makes a photograph “work” for anyone else…not, at least, beyond what I hope for.

This, to me, rates a “hilarious” on the irony meter, since the present age values “likes”, “faves”, and “LOVEs” above all other laurels in photography in a way that has made us slaves to popular approval even as we remain completely clueless as to how it’s earned. No cute tricks succeed. We can’t just replicate what people liked about our past stuff. We can’t cynically analyze what vaulted others’ images into the like-o-sphere. We can’t even play to what we believe others’ biases to be. And, for the sake of our photographs, we’re foolish to even try.

As a personal illustration of my point, I have absolutely no idea why this image has, at this writing, racked up over 4,000 views in the space of three days. This is not me boasting. To boast, I’d have to be taking credit for something I understood or had something to do with. No, this is me being dumbfounded. The picture represents, for me, the most transitory of whims, a final frame clicked off in impulse on the way back to my car after I thought I’d done the “important” work of the day. I thought there was something mildly (underlined) interesting about seeing this public pool “at rest”, if you will, just a week ahead of the end of the school year. No kids. No noise. Not a ripple or a wave to be had. A picture of something that hasn’t happened yet. That’s it. It was truly a case of “let’s shoot this and see what (excuse me) develops”.

And so the views and likes pile up for this one, and knowing that fact is no help at all. I want to take the brief flashlight being shown on my least favorite child and shine it on my pet instead, but it don’t work that way. Humans are perverse. We desperately seek to make a connection, then kvetch about whether it was done with AC or DC current. We want you to like us, but we want you to like the same thing about us that we like about us.

This gap between what photographers hope is important and what strikes everyone else as noteworthy reminds me of the actress Nastassia Kinski, who once came onto the Letterman show with her hair pasted into a straight vertical spike two feet high. Dave decided to act as if this were as normal as having a nose between your eyes and proceeded through the the interview without a remark. As the segment drew to a close, a slightly desperate Kinski purred, ” you haven’t asked me about my hair..”, to which Letterman replied, “Oh, you want it to look like that…”


INTIMATE STRANGERS

Colin Patrick Perkins, December, 2017

By MICHAEL PERKINS

AT THIS STAGE OF MY LIFE, I find myself playing two conflicting games of “who’s there” as regards my identity in the context of generations. On one hand, in front of the shaving mirror, I can clearly see my grandmother’s face pushing its way forward through my own. On the other, I now can see echoes of the “serious” younger man I thought I was being inscribed across the features of my adult children.

It is too late for me to explore my grandmother’s face for further clues, beyond studying the images others made of her. Sadly, as a photographic subject, she was amazingly opaque. I can’t think of a single image of her that reveals or explains an iota of what I know emotionally of her. Looking down into her soul through a photograph is as unlikely as trying to see through a lead-lined wall. As for myself and my three legatees, we seem not only to be facial re-interpretations of each other, but occasionally, a glimpse into what she was as well. Strange.

My children are all serious contenders, in that they believe that life is to be gotten on with, no dilly-dallying, if you please. They are, in that way, far better agents of change and action than I was. Time has begun to burn childhood’s last traces from their features, but the remaining faces are those of big, deep livers, of striver-survivors. Their own legends are now inscribed on them: they are, focused, intentional, resolute, courageous. I see the concern and apprehension I once wore on my own face: I read the uncertainty of their contending in this world. But I also see every laugh, every explosion of joy, every haywire vision and dream that I knew in myself: I see their first giggles, their earliest amazements.

And so, although my camera can only see a fraction of these things unaided, I am now able to provide that aid: I see now with ever-new eyes. These intimate strangers are my teachers, not my students. My grandmother, cipher of raw endurance that she was, might even have recognized herself in these new iterations of old star-stuff. She speaks to me in the mirror, as if to remind me, get it right, boy. Similarly, my children speak to me in pictures, enjoining me to do the same thing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


EVERYTHING OLD IS….OLD AGAIN

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ONE OF THE LOWHANGINGFRUITEASYLAYUP STORIES in 2017 pop culture circles was the report that, after years of manufacturing its own version of the defunct Polaroid Corporation’s instant camera film, an appropriately named company known as the Impossible Project had acquired all of Polaroid’s remaining intellectual property. As a result, the IP, now re-born as Polaroid Originals, could now begin making it own brand-new Polaroid cameras.

The story had great appeal for the analog-was-better crowd, the LP-hugging CD haters who pegged the decline of civilization to the day mankind first embraced zeroes and ones. Writer after writer wiped aside a misty tear to rhapsodize about the OneStep2, the first new “Polaroid” camera in more than a decade, and to recount their own fond memories of the “unique” quality of each unreproducable shot, as well as the wonderfully unpredictable randomness of wondering if your next shot, or indeed the entire rest of the film pack, would yield anything in the way of an image that was worth wiping your nose on.

Which brings us to the Brutal Main Truth of the matter: Polaroids were never really good cameras. They were engineered to fulfill a need for uncomplicated and quick gratification, marketed to an audience of snapshooters and selfiemongers. Inventor Edward Land placed all of his emphasis on perfecting the spontaneous function of his film, and to simplifying the taking of pictures to the point that your goldfish could pretty much operate the cameras. That said, Polaroid film was unstable, balky, moody, mushy, and generally useless as an archival medium. Of course, the company tried to shape an alternate narrative: certain high-end, professional grade iterations of the camera appeared at the margins of the photo market, with Polaroid hiring Ansel Adams as a “consultant” on color (which is a little like hiring a childless person to head up a daycare), and the brand got a pass from culture vultures like Andy Warhol, who tried to legitimize the cool, what-the-hell factor of the cameras for a generation hooked on immediacy. But in the end, Polaroid photography delivered mere convenience and fun, seldom art.

In terms of its legacy, there are no classic Polaroid lenses, nor any other evidence that the company ever trusted its customers with taking pictures like grown-ups. Model after model refused to allow users to take even basic manual control of the process of photography, offering instead frozen focal lengths, a stingy array of shutter speeds, and cave-man-level focusing options. Finally, by the dawn of the digital age, Polaroid whimpered out as it had roared in, making the process ever easier, the gear ever cheaper, and the results ever worse.

Polaroid Originals is now poised to do something its namesake never did: make a real good camera for people who also like the tactile, hold-it-in-your-hand sensation of instant photography. But they’re off to a lame start, if the brainless, artless OneStep2 is any indication. Not only is this gob of plastic optically stunted, the film made by Polaroid Originals, who had to figure out the process without any blueprint or guidance from Polaroid, looks even worse than actual Polaroid film, which is a little like finding out that your mud pies don’t look as elegant as everyone else’s. And did we mention the cost, which works out to nearly two dollars per print?

And so, for analog hogs, everything old is really just old again. As we speak, Kodak is preparing to produce an all new Super-8 movie camera… for around $2,400. Surely we can’t be two far from a loving re-launch of the Ford Edsel. I hear they gots a cigarette lighter right in the dashboard…….


BRIGHTER IS BETTER

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

JUST BECAUSE SOMETHING IS GLIB OR SIMPLE doesn’t mean it’s not true. We tire of people’s pet platitudes because saying things like “get a good night’s sleep” or “honesty is the best policy” seems too easy, as if the wisdom contained in these time-worn axioms must have dried up years ago. So when I tell you something extremely “well, duh!” about photography, it won’t sound wise or profound. It will sound like something any simpleton knows. Obvious. Goes without saying. And yet..

So, here’s my one immutable truth about making pictures:

Get enough light, and you will have solved 99% of any problems that bedevil your photos.

There’ll be a brief pause here for the crowd to collectively roll its eyes.

And before we proceed further, I’m speaking primarily of natural, organic, comes-through-the-window-like-God’s-gift-to-the-world light. Most of what you do with artificial light has to do with compensating and correcting for the fundamental wrongness of the stuff. Yes, I know you have an incredible flash set-up. I don’t care.

Buy the most voraciously lighthungry lenses you can afford.

Light is the only factor in photography that determines the efficacy of every other factor. Every major advancement in the design of lenses, recording media, and camera mechanics has been made for the sole purpose of gathering and utilizing more of it. Light alone can control how a subject is modeled, highlighted, presented. Get enough of it, and you shoot faster and simpler. Learn to shape it and you also learn how to create drama, to compose, to characterize things in precisely the way your mind has visualized them.

Light controls texture. It makes a shot either muted or loud. It can create the sensation of any moment of the day or night. It directs the eye. It makes bad lenses better and good lenses great. And, speaking of lenses, the best money you can spend on any lens, anywhere, is on how fast, how light-hungry it is. All other functions of high-tech optics aren’t worth a bucket of spit if the things can’t deliver lots of light in a hurry. Forget about chromatic aberration, vignetting and all the other headaches associated with glass: get enough light and you’re halfway home.

Most importantly, light is the only element in photography that is literally its own subject. A wonderful image can be of light, about light, because of light. So before you get good at anything else in the making of pictures, learn to gather light efficiently, mold it to your will, and serve it. Every other boat in your optical harbor will be lifted in the process.


HOWS AND WHYS

By MICHAEL PERKINS

AS THE NORMAL EYE BEGINS ANOTHER YEAR of scraps and scribblings, we like to both welcome those of you who’ve joined our little volunteer fire company since we last passed “go”, and thank our long-term friends and contributors for their vision and faith. As they say on the airlines, we know you have many choices for ways to fly. That you choose, from time to time, to fly with us is a great privilege.

We also mark the turn of the calendar to re-affirm what this home-town newspaper is, or is not. To my mind, the most vital part of photography has never been about mere technical proficiency. Virtually anyone, I believe, can learn the rudiments of exposure and aperture in a weekend. Not master them, but learn them. The greater task, by far, for anyone hoping to attain that mastery, is to train oneself to see in ever more comprehensive ways, to develop the instinct-based curiosity that takes the creative decisions from the camera’s automodes and puts them back into the hands of the photographer.

The Author Looks Back. Or maybe just to the right.

Prior to the development of more and more fool-proofed ways of acquiring consistently satisfactory images from the technical assists offered by amazing cameras, the native, or “normal” state of the photographer’s eye was one of mindfulness, of forethought, of consciously mapping out and planning a shot. Thus, as our name implies, “the normal eye” is one that sees critically and makes choices with deliberation. That means declaring more and more independence from mere technology. It means that your camera is your servant, not your master.

In the years since The Normal Eye was launched, the world has witnessed several significant revolutions in photographic philosophy, all of them placing the highest possible emphasis on experimentation and the kind of wondrous, personal uncertainty that can only result from the photographer, and not the camera, being in charge. The rebirth of instant camera’s, the refusal of film to “die”, the Lomography movement…. all are happening, not because of any sage wisdom in these pages, but because art cannot stand still, and will always reject the notion that everything’s already been invented, or that all the great images have already been shot.

The journey from taking pictures to making pictures remains irresistible, and, as it happens, inevitable. Thank you once again for joining us on that road.


O SILVER TREE, O SILVER TREE……

Cussins & Fern Hardware, Columbus, Ohio, Christmas 1965

By MICHAEL PERKINS

CBS TELEVISION FIRST AIRED A Charlie Brown Christmas on December 9, 1965, creating an instant seasonal classic. It got its first tenuous viewing despite the network suits’ fears that the modest little story, voiced by children(!), sporting a jazz soundtrack(!) and gently suggesting that the holiday may be about more than greed and glitz, would lay a giant Yuletide egg. They needn’t have worried, as it turned ou. The show nobody wanted became the tradition without which no Christmas could be thought to be complete.

One of the show’s main plot points involves Charlie Brown’s fear that the holiday has been hijacked by hucksters, so much so that the hottest selling Christmas trees in his neighborhood are not verdant firs but pastel-painted, neon monstrosities. There was a lot of that nonsense going on in those days.

The photograph you see here was taken just days after that first airing of ACBC, but I can’t really claim to be channeling its energy or trying to echo its sentiments. The picture isn’t so much a comment on commercialism (nothing that formal) so much as it is a question.

I was a very young thirteen in December 1965, and had only wielded my Imperial Mark XII box camera on a few occasions prior to the day I found myself wandering around Northern Lights shopping center in Columbus, Ohio, specifically past the display window of the Cussins & Fern Hardware Company. Like Charlie Brown, I thought that some holiday novelties, like the recently introduced aluminum Xmas trees were odd, even though I liked the included rotating wheels that projected ever-changing colors onto the silvery sticks in a kind of robotically cold imitation of gaiety. However, unlike Charlie Brown, I don’t think I regarded these abstract Future Trees as an affront to decency. I just thought they were weird.

I do remember thinking that the window showed a Christmas that was just kind of……off, a Christmas in which you got a whole television set or a food freezer as a present, a Christmas filled with Strange Trees From The Future, a Christmas where you could always buy….money orders? I knew, in that era, next to nothing about how to formally frame a shot or a visual commentary. I didn’t have the pictorial vocabulary to make an argument. I couldn’t interpret. I just pointed at things that interested me and trusted those things to carry their own narrative weight. I was point-and-shoot before point-and-shoot wiz cool.

This Christmas, both the holiday and I are still in flux. I continue to point my camera at shop windows, and continue to wonder what the whole mad mix of beauty and banality means. I still don’t have the answer. Alas, as a photographer, you often have to be content with merely learning better ways to ask the question.

Now, if I can just find someplace to buy Uncle Ed that money order he asked for…..


NO SECOND ACT

 

The first Port Columbus air terminal, opened in 1929.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THERE IS SOMETHING TRAGIC, AND CONFOUNDING, in America’s longstanding reluctance to re-use and re-purpose its historic infrastructure. This ever-young nation seems to have an allergic reaction to preservation, as if the physical artifacts of its heritage contained some kind of dread plague. As a consequence, buildings that have figured most prominently in the story of our nation’s amazing evolution fall…. first to neglect, then to the wrecking ball.

Photography is a way to bear witness to what Gore Vidal called “the United States Of Amnesia”, a way to document lost opportunities and wasted potential across the fifty states. Miles of once-vital roads that no longer lead anywhere: blocks of neighborhoods that now howl and whistle in a dead wind: acres of buildings that once housed history instead of cockroaches and cobwebs. All is ripe for either revelation or regret at the point of a camera.

The deserted interior of the terminal in 2017.

Columbus, Ohio’s original air terminal building, opened in 1929 with hoopla and help from both Amelia Earhart and co-founder Charles Lindbergh, is one such location. Created as part of the country’s first fledgling attempt at a transcontinental air service (and this, only two years after Lindbergh’s astonishing solo flight to Paris) “Port Columbus” was solid proof that the air age was real.

Real enough, in fact, that a mere nineteen years later, the city’s air traffic had grown so rapidly that construction began on a shiny new international hub, big enough to accommodate a mid-century tourist boom, the jet era, and an explosion of international travel. The 1929 terminal was shuttered, living a few latter-day half-lives as offices for one short-term tenant or another, finally coming its silent rest on the Port’s back property, its legacy given half-hearted lip service with the obligatory plaque on the door.

Full disclosure: Columbus, Ohio was, for most of my life, my hometown. It is, among other things, a city of many firsts, a vital test market of ideas for everything from ATMs to hula hoops. And while I know that new uses won’t be in the cards for all historically important buildings there (or, indeed, anywhere), I am glad, at least, that, as photographers, we are privileged to say of such places: look here. This happened. This was important.

It’s often said that there are no second acts in American lives.

That’s tragic. And confounding.