PENCIL VS. INK
By MICHAEL PERKINS
RAISED AS THE SON OF AN ILLUSTRATOR WHO WAS ALSO A PHOTOGRAPHER, I have always been more comfortable with the idea of the photographic image as a work-in-progress rather than as a finished thing. That is, I bring a graphic artist’s approach to any project I do, which is to visualize an idea several different ways before committing myself to the final rendering. Call if sketching, roughing, rehearsing…..whatever…but, both on the page/canvas and the photograph, I see things taking shape over the space of many trial “drafts”. And, just as you don’t just step up and draw a definitive picture, you usually can’t just step up and snap a fully realized photo. I was taught to value process over product, or, if you will, journey over destination.
This belief was embodied in my dad’s advice to lay down as many pencil lines as possible before laying in the ink line. Ink meant commitment. We’re done developing. We’re finished experimenting. Ready to push the button and, for better or worse, live with this thing. Therefore the idea of a sketch pad, or preliminary studies of a subject, eventually led to a refined, official edition. This seems consistent with people like Ansel Adams, who re-imagined some of his negatives more than half a dozen times over decades, each print bearing its own special traits, even though his source material was always the same. Similarly, “studies” in music served as miniature versions of themes later realized in full in symphonies or concertos.
The photo equivalent of a sketch pad, for me in 2014, is the phone camera. It’s easy to carry everywhere, fairly clandestine, and able to generate at least usable images under most conditions. This allows me to quickly knock off a few tries on something that, in some cases, I will later shoot “for real” (or “for good”) with a DSLR, allowing me to use both tools to their respective strengths. The spy-eye-I-can-go-anywhere aspect of iPhones is undeniably convenient, but often as not I have to reject the images I get because, at this point in time, it’s just not possible to exert enough creative control over these cameras to give full voice to everything in my mind. If the phone camera is my sketch pad, my full-function camera is my ink and brush. One conceives, while the other refines and commits.
You write things like this knowing full well that technology will make a monkey out of you at its next possible opportunity, and I actually look forward to the day when I am free of the bulk and baggage of what are, at least now, better cameras overall. But we’re not there yet, and may not be for a while. I still make the distinction between a convenient camera and a “real” camera, and I freely admit that bias. A Porsche is still better than a bicycle, and the first time you’re booked as a pianist into Carnegie Hall, your manager doesn’t insist that they provide you with a state-of-the-art….Casio. It’s a Steinway or the highway.
“EFFECT” VS. “EFFECTIVE”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE ISN’T ANYTHING EMPTIER THAN THE PERFECT EXECUTION OF A FLAWED IDEA. And in the present effects-drenched photographic arena, where nearly any texture, color, or conception can be at least technically realized, we need, always, to be making one crucial distinction: separating what we can do from what we should do.
The basic “fixes” which come natively loaded in even the most basic cameras (filters, effects, nostalgic slathers of antique colors) suggest a broad palette of choices for the photographer looking to extend his reach through what is basically an instantaneous short cut. Fine and dandy, so far. Who, after all, wants to labor for hours to augment a shot with a particular look if that effect can be achieved at the touch of a button? Certainly no one gets into photography anymore with the understanding that they will also have to act as a chemist, and creativity need not be the exclusive playground of the scientifically elite. We all agree that the aim of photography always has and always should be the placing of all tools in as many hands as possible, etc., etc.
But waita seccint. Did I say the world tool? ……(will the recorder read that last part back….?……”placing of all tools in as many…”)… yep, tool. Ya see, that word has meaning. It does not mean an end unto itself. A fake fisheye doth not a picture make. Nor doth a quickie panorama app, a cheesy sepia filter, nor (let’s face it) the snotty habit of saying “doth”. These things are supposed to supplement the creative moment, not be a substitute for it. They are aids, not “fixes”.
This comes back to the earlier point. Of course we can simulate,imitate, or re-create certain visual conditions. But what are we actually saying in the picture? Did we use the effect to put a firm period at the end of a strong sentence, or did we use it as a smoke bomb to allow us to exit the stage before the audience gets wise to the fakery?
One of the original objections to photography, as stated by painters, was that we were handing off the actual act of visual artistry to a (gasp!) machine. A little hysterical, to be sure, but a concern is still worth addressing.
There is a soul in that machine, to be sure.
But only if we supply it.
TERMS OF ENGAGEMENT
By MICHAEL PERKINS
OVER A HUNDRED YEARS AGO, WHEN EASTMAN KODAK’S AIM WAS TO PUT A CAMERA INTO THE HANDS OF THE AVERAGE EVERYMAN, their slogan, “You press the button, and we do the rest” was meant as an enticement. Not only had Kodak so simplified the processing of taking a snap as to make it irresistible, but they covered everything that happened next, allowing you to ship the camera, film inside, to them, at their cost, have them sweat the processing and printing, and ship back your photos, having also pre-loaded a fresh roll into your camera. You were covered at all ends, and this was a good thing. It was also an immensely successful thing for Kodak, which was, after all, not in the camera business, but in the film business (so shoot lots of it, hint hint).
Today’s camera phones are essentially the Kodak Brownies of the 21st century, with many refinements. Unlike the Brownie, the iPhone can intuit what you need in the way of light and aperture and supply it without troubling you with why or how it happens. Much like the box Kodaks of the Victorian era, today’s cameras are also bent on saving you the hassle of negotiating most decisions and choices. Again, this is a tremendously successful business plan, since it is safe to assume that most people would rather take the picture than think about how to take the picture.
But it is this very convenience that is a kind of strait jacket for photographers who were weaned on Pentaxes, Nikons and Canons, since, for us, the rules of engagement are lopsided. The camera is not meeting us in the middle as a co-creator or partner, but jamming us into a far corner, relegating us to the role of “the guy who hits the shutter”. Giving up all that active control can be freeing for some, but suffocating for others, and it speaks to the love-hate relationships many photogs have with their phones. On the one hand, Holy Hanna, looka these optics and ready-made tricks. On the other hand, you can feel that you’re just riding shotgun instead of steering.
With this in mind, I use an iPhone for the kind of street stuff where the concept or story is almost totally complete in itself, where I would only lose the moment or fiddle needlessly if carrying a more complex camera, or where the presence of a more obvious, “serious” camera would attract too much unwelcome attention. Damn ’em, phone cameras do buy you some invisibility and stealth, which is crazy, since much greater harm has been done by these ubiquitous little snoopercams than by all the “pro” cameras ever manufactured. Go figure.
When you take all the worry out of making a picture, you take all the responsibility and some of the joy out of it, too. My opinion, from my perch in the land of the dinosaurs. Cameras are not artists: they are tools, and when you give up the final say-so in what a picture will eventually be to a device, you get the recording of information, not the documentation of a soul.
COMFY VS. CONFRONTATIONAL
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE SEEMS TO BE TWO SETS OF RULES WHEN IT COMES TO CANDID PHOTOGRAPHY.
It seems size does matter.
Let me explain.
The physical dimensions of cameras are an unspoken code for the comfort level we extend to the photographers behind them. This may go back to the very first days of the medium, when all cameras were obtrusively large and obvious. Getting your picture “took” was a formal, intentional thing, and that bulky machine was there to record something permanent, important. Contrast that with the appearance , at the end of the 19th century, of the Kodak Brownie, the first genuine “everyman” camera. Small. Personal. Informal. Most of all, non-threatening.
Jump to the present day and the pronounced size difference between compact cameras and DSLRs, a distinction which still signals whether a photomaker is perceived as friend or foe. “Friend” is the guy who quickly snaps a picture of you and your friends blowing out birthday candles with his cute little Fuji or iPhone. “Foe” is more likely the guy taking time to frame a shot while hiding his predatory face behind a big scary Nikon….since he’s the “serious” photographer, thus less trustworthy. Is he after something? Is he trying to catch me doing something stupid, or worse, actually revelatory? Is he trying to imprison my soul in his box?
This binary reaction….good camera, bad camera…is deeply rooted in our collective DNA. It’s understandable. But it’s illogical.
Seriously, consider the twin assaults that digital media and miniaturization have launched on the concept of privacy in recent decades. Ponder the sheer ubiquity of all those millions of new “friendly” little phones. Contemplate the invasion represented by the indiscriminate, relentless posting of giga-hunks of previously personal moments on social networks, then tell me how the presence of more formal, “foe” cameras represents anything close to the same level of risk or exposure. And yet it is the purse-sized camera that is regarded in public places as benign, while the DSLR is far more likely to be rousted by mall cops acting as self-appointed foto sheriffs.
I’m not saying for a moment that there shouldn’t be civility, decency, respect and restraint practiced by photographers who are, however briefly, entering the personal space of strangers. That’s just common sense. I always feel horrible when I think my presence has caused my subjects to cringe or twitch. However, I think it’s time that, for candid photography, there be a single set of rules on the concept of comfy versus confrontational.
- Kodak Brownie Reimagined as Vintage iPhone Dock (iphonesavior.com)