By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY AT ITS MOST EFFECTIVE, is a pure and wordless kind of storytelling, virtually limitless and astoundingly efficient. Using a visual shorthand, that is, the static image stolen in an instant, we can suggest any narrative, past, present or future. Our tales not only feed off the storyteller’s intent but also off of what the viewer interprets. We can make anything mean anything. If stories are a constantly moving parade, we determine where the “hop on” and “hop off” points in it will be.
We do this by controlling the frame.
We make very intentional choices in a photographic frame. What is included is vital, but so is what is deliberately excluded, since both choices spark the imagination. We are, in effect, having a conversation, a debate over those choices with our audiences. Why did we show this and not that? Is this thing important because it naturally occurred in the picture, or am I making it important because I placed it there? And what do I think about what the photographer decided to leave out?
As the aforementioned parade of existence passes, the photographer’s hop-on point for the eye can supply context, showing connection between one thing and another…..or it can editorially destroy context, forcing us to see a thing in isolation, on its own terms. Consider, for a moment, the….. thing in the above image. Where did I get it? What was its purpose versus other things in its “world”? Can you, the viewer, assign it a new association that, for you, works just as well as the original?
All this discussion, all this interpretation, all these individual conceptions of what a thing “is”…all abetted by assembling the frame and than adding and subtracting within it. We talk a lot in these pages about the various sciences of photographic measurement…..exposure, light, apertures…. but I think composition outranks them all. Sure, know how to harness the tools that will help you record your message. But first, figure out what the hell you’re talking about.
And where you want your passengers to hop on.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHIC TECHNIQUES CAN BE THOUGHT OF as both active and passive. Some of the tools used to tell a visual story silently move narratives along without loudness or fuss, while others deliberately call attention as much to themselves as to the tales they tell. You can make pictures that betray very little of “how’d they do that?” or you can trumpet your tricks very loudly.
Or, of course, you can do both.
As a case study, consider one of 2018’s Oscar contenders, The Favourite, which tells a surreal tale of eighteenth-century castle intrigue with camera work that fairly screams to be noticed, mixing standard widescreen shots with ultra-wide and even fisheye compositions, shuffled together in jarring transitions, as if the director needs to remind us how twisted and nightmarish the story it by keeping us visually off-kilter for the entire length of the movie. Contrast this with most films that try to render their photographic tricks invisibly, in keeping with established Hollywood tradition. Is it a case of The Favorite’s director merely showing off his technical cleverness?
Well, yes and no. Various lenses convey vastly different concepts of space, of the width and depth of rooms, of the relationships between man and nature. Using an extreme tool like, say, a fisheye, changes the rules of engagement for the viewer, even when applied to a conventional subject. The photographer is, in effect, saying “composition is what I say it is, not what you’ve been led to expect.” Of course, when you drastically distort how a scene or object is presented, you risk your picture being “about” the visual effect, eclipsing your message instead of amplifying it.
The characters in The Favourite are in a constant state of moral disequilibrium, with everyone jostling for position or advantage, so an unsettling shift between various lenses reflects their uncertainty, the unreality of their situation, actually enhancing the nightmare quality for the audience. Does your picture call for a technique that, in turn, calls attention to itself? Flamboyant or not, the answer must, occasionally be yes.
Just because you’re showing off doesn’t mean you’re wrong.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ANY PHOTOGRAPHER WORTH THE NAME is supposed to embrace landscapes, right? I mean, scenes of sea coasts and mountain ranges were among the first “official” subject categories photography inherited from the world of painting. The earliest pictures created with a “machine” pretended to legitimacy by capturing the same tableaux as those captured with a brush. I get that. But, as I have confessed many times in these pages, I often feel cast adrift in approaching “scenery” shots. I have more difficulty in shaping their narrative, whereas walking around a city, I feel like stories are literally laying all over the ground. I may have a general sense of what a landscape should look like, whereas I don’t always know what they are about. I have plenty of terrain, but no maps.
Think in terms of whatever kind of photograph you yourself feel most challenged. Do you shy away from your shorter suit because the task is too technically daunting, or because you feel unsure of what to say? It seems that landscapes often come to me without any clearly stated rules of engagement. What is a good composition? How crowded, how “busy” with visual elements can it be? Is the answer simply to render more detail than the next guy, that is, set for f/64 and show everything in tack sharpness, as if recording a scene “faithfully” were all? Or, as in the shot shown here (which I actually like), can a picture be dreamily soft and tremendously crowded with stuff, and still “work”?
The really maddening thing is that I just don’t have these inner dialogues when I’m shooting street scenes, abstracts, portraits. I don’t worry about whether a thing should be done, I just do it. Moreover, I trust myself to do it without a lot of dithering. But landscapes make me stop and worry. Maybe that pausing will lead to more deliberate thinking, and, in turn, to better pictures. The jury’s still out.
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.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE’VE ALL DONE IT: we’re sent to the grocery store for bread and milk, and come back with a six-pack of beef jerky, a gallon tub of guacamole, and a family-sized box of Trix. Sometimes, lost in the sublime and seductive specials inside the store, we even come home without the bread and milk. But, hey, beef jerky.
That’s what happens on some photographic shoots.
The sequence is familiar. You pick the target. You pack the appropriate gear. You may also have to book passage or pay for admission to something. You research the forecast. You even visualize the expected layout or sequence of shots. And then comes the day itself, a day upon which, for whatever reason, the pictures won’t come. A day upon which you can’t buy a usable image for love or money. To further torture my original metaphor, the grocery store is fresh out of bread and milk.
But, fear not: as a photographer, you are nothing if not resilient. Like a lost dad determined to find something of use somewhere in the supermarket, you go looking for deals. The pictorial orphans. The what-the-hell or go-for broke shots. Wild clicks as you’re slinking back to the parking lot. Cripes, at this point, you’re reduced to looking for cute dogs. But will these desperate moves yield pictorial gold?
No guarantees. Fate doesn’t dole out consolation prizes. However, the primal panic that results from seeing your Plan “A” go down in flames can make you more open to experimentation, less fastidious about getting the perfect frame. That, in turn, may lead to embracing the accidental over the intentional……of moving your emphasis from the conceptual (your original plan) to the perceptual (flashes of ideas that occur once your mind is open).
The shot seen here, if I’m honest, is neither good nor bad. It was merely workable at the end of a day on which absolutely nothing else was. I liked what the light was ( and wasn’t) doing in the moment, and the girl gave me a small anchor for the viewer’s eye, albeit a small one. Other than that, I had no overarching concept for the picture. An empty grocery cart made me reach for the beef jerky.
Photographs begin with intention, certainly. But we often kid ourselves about what a huge part randomness plays in what happens between Think and Click. We’d love to assume we’re in charge of our process. But let’s also learn to love the disrupters, the detours, and the dreams gone amiss.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PERHAPS, LIKE ME, you keep, within your photographer’s memory, a running total of many, many shots that might have been salvaged, had you only had a few extra moments to plan them better. Any approach to serious picture-making hinges not merely on conceiving an image, nor just having either technical means or talent, but on being able to weigh all one’s options within the constraints of time.
Of course, mastering all other elements of photography, from equipment to raw skill, does allow you to shoot faster, or, more correctly, to make the best use of the time you have. Still, no matter your experience level, there will always be instances where the setting, the light, or other conditions move so quickly that reaction time is minimalized and some shots simply get away. The way I sum this up is to say that we’re trying to create art on a snapshot time budget.
As is often the case, this problem becomes crystal clear in the moment of shooting. Everything about this image began as happenstance. I happened to call on a friend as he was finishing up work for the day. That, in turn, meant that he happened to conduct me to his office’s break room near a sixth-floor window. The final and most crucial bit of chance occurred when he asked me to wait while he went to close out his desk before we headed for dinner, giving me up to ten precious minutes to decide what to do with this amazing view. Ten minutes to try, reject, reframe, rethink…..all without the pressure of worrying if I was keeping anyone waiting, or fretting that the walk light would change and I’d have to move on, or any of a myriad of other picture-killing factors. I had the luxury of lingering.
Of course, I could fill another half-page discussing what I was looking for, or how the five or six frames I shot shaped what I eventually landed on, but that discussion is for another day. What’s important is that the circumstances allowed me the time to set an intention for the picture, to walk it through several iterations until I was comfortable (not an insignificant word) in making a choice.
As you can probably surmise, the purely technical aspects of getting this shot were relatively simple: the true challenge was in mentally massaging the idea of the scene until it, well, looked like a picture, and not having to do so on the fly. We’re forced, all too frequently, to do things by reflex, and so to make a picture at leisure, on purpose…..that, to me, is the very essence of photography.
BY MICHAEL PERKINS
Don’t lose your confidence if you slip…..be grateful for a pleasant “trip“…..
Jerome Kern & Dorothy Fields, “Pick Yourself Up”
THE UNDERSTANDABLE EXCITEMENT THAT ACCOMPANIES the acquisition of a new camera is like that experienced by the first-time driver of a finely-tuned sports car,…..i.e., let’s open this baby up and see what’ll she’ll do.
All well and good. However, for the best translation of your vision, from eye to finger to shutter, I contend that it’s more important to know what your camera won’t do. Or more precisely, to learn what you don’t know to tell it to do.
Just as we are eager to credit ourselves, and not the camera, for those shots that really work out well, we need also to shoulder our share of the blame when things fail. The camera that delivers your message perfectly is the same camera that produced the shots that deserve to line birdcages. The difference is you. Your gear is composed of servo-mechanisms. They are neither intuitive nor interpretative. Anything that smacks of aesthetic judgement or nuance is on you. Am I saying there’s no such thing as a “good” or “bad” camera? No, but those two labels should be a measure of design, function and technical parameters. Your skill can both empower a limited camera and hobble an advanced one, so talk of “good” or “bad” falls apart once a disposable creates a masterpiece or a Leica delivers garbage.
This means that, at bottom, your choice of camera matters very little, whereas the choices your eye asks the camera to execute is, simply, everything. Try as it might, the camera cannot compensate for what you didn’t know how to articulate. Finding out what your camera won’t do means learning how to respect its technical limits while trying to eradicate those selfsame limits in yourself. That means, as Paul Simon wrote, “learning how fall”. It’s a pretty good strategy, since every one of us had to learn that in order to learn how to walk.
UPractice. Be eager to fail, and to learn yourself past future failure. And eventually get to the point where you never, ever write a check your camera can’t cash. Then, and only then will you really see what that baby will do.
BY MICHAEL PERKINS
ALL OF WHAT WE CALL “EFFECTS” LENSES can additionally be used as “art” lenses, but they can also, for a photographer, merely be a way of saying, “hey, look at the cool trick I learned!” In what and how we shoot, we draw the line between “showing something” and just showing off.
Since no single lens can produce every desired optical look, we swap out speciality glass to get the effect we want in a given image. But is the final picture complemented or defined by that effect? Is the photograph “about” how close you zoomed in, or what you zoomed in to see? Did you shoot with a stereoscopic lens just to demonstrate 3D, or is there some deeper understanding of your subject achieved with the added sensation of dimensionality? You see where this is going: the yin and yang between calling on technique and calling attention to that technique for its own sake.
In trying to be mindful of this either/or way of using effects gear, from macro filters to pinhole lenses to ultra wides, I try to use some of them counter-intuitively, forcing them to tell stories in ways that go beyond the obvious. One such lens, and one which comes with its own set of pre-conceptions and biases, is the fisheye, which, for many, never left the bendy realm of psychedelic album covers and black-light posters, time-locked somewhere between Warhol and Peter Max. However, even in the most exaggerated fisheye shots there is the opportunity to create what I call “calm at the center”….an area roughly one third of the total frame where distortion is either muted or completely absent.
When a compelling and more normally proportioned middle is built into your shot, such as the stair steps leading toward the bench in this greenhouse shot, the bending that increases toward the outer edge of the shot can act as a framing device that leads the eye to your chief focus. The emphasis can then be placed on what is not distorted rather than what is. The fisheye lens is thus used to call attention to what it’s serving in the picture, rather than calling attention to itself.
Does this shot deliver what I was seeking? That’s for others to judge: the only thing I can be sure of is my intention, after all. Effects lenses are not automatically art lenses, any more than every camera owner is automatically a photographer. Results, finally, are the best testimony.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE ACT OF PUBLISHING A PHOTOGRAPH is roughly equivalent to a lawyer’s closing argument, in that it is an attempt to persuade, to sell an idea. To make his own “case”, a photographer must be fearlessly certain of what he is trying to say, a process that begins with the conviction that what he has frozen in an exposure is the truth, because his eye is a reliable narrator. Lying eye, lying result.
The development of the photographer’s eye is one of two parallel tracks on the road to truthful images, the other being technical mastery. The challenge, then, for the photographer, is in narrowing the gap between what the camera captures and what the eye contends is the essence of the picture. Bear in mind that, between photographer and camera, only one of those things has an imagination. You have to tell the camera what to see in such a way that, as a mere technical measuring device, it has no choice but to obey.
John Szarkowski, the legendary director of photography at the New York Museum of Modern Art and a great shooter in his own right, expressed perfectly the problem that occurs when the eye and the hand are not on the same wavelength:
No mechanism has ever been devised that recorded visual fact so clearly as photography. The consistent flaw in the system has been that it recorded the wrong “facts”: not what we “knew” was there, but what had appeared to be there.
Long story short (and isn’t about time I tried one?) : don’t blame the camera when your vision isn’t realized in the final frame. Either you need a better vision, or a better way of setting up the shot so that the camera can’t help but deliver it. If you don’t turn on the water, the best hose in the world can’t put out a fire.
Stand in front of the court and make your case.
Show us what you see.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY IS GUILTY OF MANY AN UNTRUTH, simply by the very nature of how it mimics reality. And chief among these falsehoods is its assertion that it’s reproducing depth as well as length and breadth, that you’re not only looking at a photograph but into it as well. Compositional tricks employed to sell this illusion are as old as the medium itself, many employing the technique familiarly known as leading lines.
The phrase is practically an explanation in itself: two or more lines of some kind seem to originate near the foreword edge of the picture and trail inward, receding toward the “back” of the frame, usually toward a horizon line of infinity, at a point at which the lines seem to converge, like train tracks that grow closer as they fade into the distance. Leading lines can take the form of a spiral staircase, a winding stream, or some similar invitation for your eye to “buy into” the idea that the flat image is actually “deep”.
As surefire as leading lines can be, it’s also fun to experiment with other ways to convey the illusion of depth. The image seen here uses no obvious leading lines, and yet it achieves a reasonable effect of dimensionality. Several things can help “sell” the trick.
First and easiest is the choice of a 24mm lens. This optic qualifies as an “ultra-wide” and will always exaggerate the distance from front to back. Then there’s the detailed texture of rock and sand, whose particles shrink in size as the tide pool recedes toward the sea, and just as our mind knows it would in nature. As to focus, setting at infinity helps the eye look deeper into the shot, whereas just shooting only the family in sharpness might stop the audience at a shallower viewing point. Finally, the placing of the family at center and at the mid-point of the front-to-back distance means you have to “look into” the shot fairly deeply just to engage them, at which point your brain has already been dragged halfway to the rear of the shot.
And this is only one very elementary example of how you can effect the depth of a leading line image without….the leading lines. In some ways, photographic compositions are much like musical ones: both require orchestration and a willful conductor.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ANYONE THAT IS NOT BORN AN OCTOPUS figures out early that photography is often about living with the consequences of unforseen choices. Perhaps creatures born with eight arms might actually be able to produce the best images, since they’d be equipped with the means to carry every piece of equipment they possessed into the field for a shoot. As for the rest of us, results rise or fall on the strength of our planning…..and resiliency.
To be clear, the word planning is meant to denote all of your process, not merely the first preference you imagined when anticipating a shoot. That “version” we label “Plan “A”, which might also be entitled “do everything the way you first envisioned it with precisely the gear you originally selected”, an outcome roughly equivalent to Marrying The Prom Queen And Retiring To Tahiti. Let’s face it: shoot enough pictures and you’ll be struck by how seldom you were able to simply step up, click, and go hang a golden trophy on your mantel. In most cases, Plan “A” is usually just a point of departure, a preliminary sketch.
So let’s assume your photo shoot has proceeded to Plan “B”, which might be named “rejecting your original conception”. At this stage, you’ve begun to question everything from composition to gear to even the strength of your initial subject. Based on how many alternate equipment choices may be available, several tough decisions can be made at this juncture, including my favorite, Doing The Best You Can (the path of least resistance), otherwise known as Shoot It Anyway. Assuming this doesn’t work out, you move briskly on to:
Plan “C”, in which you have new strategies forced on you by either the technical limits of your gear, or the boundaries of your skill level with it. This assumes that, not only did you bring the wrong lens for the job, but also that the right lens is four acres away in the parking lot. Let’s also stipulate, for purposes of this exercise, that everyone around you is getting (a) impatient, (b) tired, or (c) hungry, just to add to the pressure. Hey, pal, no rush, but take the picture already, willya? But have no fear… there’s always:
Plan “D”, in which a change in your entire approach to the image is unavoidable, but suddenly and strangely…..alluring. Being stuck with gear that won’t absolutely deliver your original vision no matter what you do, you begin to embrace the idea of experimenting, otherwise known as the What The Hell or Weary Resignation option. Hey, you grabbed a fisheye lens for the inside of the conservatory building…..but maybe you can also make it work as a standard ultra-wide (see above result). Cue up Kiss’ Nothing To Lose…
All of which is to say, in a very roundabout fashion, that it pays to be as flexible as, say, an octopus.
With one-fourth the arms.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
“LOST IN THE WOODS”. “DEEP IN THE FOREST”…conjure your own phrase for the sensation of entering, and being swallowed by, dark, mysterious places. Realms of shadow, primordial laboratories in which both dreams and nightmares are brewed. In other words, sites where photographers can wax poetic. Or crash and burn.
Forested areas are both challenge and opportunity for shooters, since they are seldom subject to the same laws of composition or exposure as subjects shot out in the open. Mastering light in woodsy settings can be a crusade in its own right: details can melt into dark murk or be completely blown out in sudden shafts of sunlight. I have produced more mushy, indecipherable messes with more cameras in more forests than I care to count, in pictures which inadvertently produce more mystery than they reveal, as in “what’s this supposed to be?”
I can come a lot closer to coherence when I work with partial clearings rather than dense woods, working with simpler compositions that suggest the feel of the forest from its near edge rather than its center. Exposure becomes a more streamlined process as well.
Also, since the emphasis in such a shot is on mood rather than detail, even the basics of focus can become, well, negotiable, as seen here. But then, almost anything in the making of a photograph is. Or should be. My point being that, when the taking of a picture fails, it can be because the photographer is trying to execute too many things at once. Eliminating some of those things until the image becomes manageable can be, like walking out of a dark forest, a profound relief.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS, MUSEUMS SHOULD NEVER BE A ONE–WAY STREET. The popular conception of the role of our various Hallowed Halls of Important Stuff is that the artifacts do all the sensory sending and we, the visiting public, do all the receiving. The idea prevails that paintings and sculptures and installations impart their wisdom and we passively soak it up, like ambulatory blotters. Thus, this logic must follow, a photographic record of the museum experience should only pointed in one direction.
But of course this is nonsense.
Anywhere you have hundreds of humans assembling in a common area, you have created an active anthropological laboratory, and thus a rich harvesting ground for the camera. A myriad of motives and paths, from “something to do” to a personal thirst for experience to a place to duck in out of the rain, converge as a “temporary collection” mixing with the museum’s’ more permanent ones. All these arrivals, each with their own energy, curiosity, hostility, apathy, fatigue, and joy to deal with, create a kaleidoscopic pattern of intrapersonal intersections and collisions. The eager attendee and the unwilling hostage exist side by side. That creates the unpredictable, and that unpredictability, for the photographer, creates opportunity.
In the image shown here, the “official” delights of the museum in question have failed to amaze, at least for the group occupying the bench. As for the woman peering out the window, she has simply found something with bigger “wow” value than anything hanging on the walls. The sheer dimensions of the space threaten to dwarf the group, to make it seem small or insignificant, and yet their faces and bodies contain a strange mix between tension and ennui that is so wonderfully human that it invites the investigative eye of the shooter.
This shot came to me virtually ready-made, although a later conversion to monochrome eliminated the minor color distractions of various articles of clothing. When a picture is this simple, everything that tends to complicate it becomes expendable. The phrase keep it simple, stupid, may not have originated with photographers, but we ought really to have it tattooed on our foreheads.
I spent nearly two hours in the museum in question (name withheld) and, I assure you, this was one of the most interesting tableaux I observed in the entire joint. It’s not that I find no interest in the arts: quite the opposite. It’s just that, visually, people reacting to the world is more vital to me than just pictures of the world alone. The whole gig is a museum, really, and frequently, the permanent collection of life is thus upstaged by the temporary one. Go figure.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOME THINGS CANNOT BE MADE VISUALLY COHERENT merely by pointing a camera at them. That is, all subjects won’t give up their secrets to the mere act of photographic recording. And that’s when mere documentation must give way to interpretation.
A case study……
There is probably no denser concentration of immersive marketing on earth than in the yawning canyons of New York City’s Times Square, a cacophonous minefield of flashing, spinning, exploding LED overload. Messages aren’t simply or singly sent or received here: rather, they elbow past each other by the hundreds, desperately contending for the viewer’s attention in microbursts of insane color and absurd scale, in what actually amounts to the dead opposite of communication. Billboards, marquees and crass chunks of street theatre, from ersatz Miss Liberties to pose-with-me Batmen, all scream and stream at once, sending the senses careening from sensation to sensation like pinballs on ampthetamines. The irony: nobody wins the race: messages all eventually fail to register, cascading in a blur like a flipped deck of cards.
This is why, for a Times Square-type subject , “straight” photography is doomed to disappoint. It’s just not enough to convey the feeling of fragmentation created by the site’s sensory bombardment. Merely freezing the action with one’s camera is an attempt to “make sense” of a reality that is, by definition, non-sensical. We don’t need to slow things down so they’re recognizable…..quite the opposite. We need instead to capture and comment on the confusion in a visual language we ourselves improvise.
In my own case, I try to further amp up the broken, shattered quality of the information that meets the eye by breaking pieces of data into even smaller pieces….a kind of double-reverse chaos. In the image seen here, I’ve turned away from a bright cluster of signs on one side of the street to shoot their reflections in a split-panel office window, forcing all the messaging from the signs into splintered abstractions, some of which come from shadows within the office itself.
This is, of course, just an example and not in any way a universal template. The precise method for creating a distortion of an already distorted reality isn’t paramount, but what I don’t want is a literal representation of these streets. Reality is in short supply in the Times Squares and Tokyos of the world. Photographers intent on commenting on that condition have to stay one step ahead, to find the double reverse chaos lurking within.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHATEVER THE PERCEIVED DOWNSIDES of the switch from analog to digital photography, perhaps the only real net negative has been how speedy the process of picture-making has become. Yes, I said negative.
Admittedly most of that vaunted speed connotes as a positive to many, a miraculous convenience. And, indeed, progressively more responsive, even “intuitive” cameras produce usable images only slightly slower than their creators can hatch a whim. Want it, take it, got it. Fast.
But “usable” doesn’t necessarily mean “great”. And it can be argued that the sheer velocity at which we crank out photographs promotes, even guarantees a stunning yield of photographic mediocrity. Because art takes forethought, a pre-imagining discipline. And there is no way to achieve that if every picture, every time, is taken in an instant.
Eventually, photographers have to proactively take back control over their final product, by the simple expedient of slowing everything down. And there are any number of simple ways to practice this. Shoot on manual. Set aside the zooms and shoot with primes. Engineer more natural light shots in lieu of flash snaps. Keep one particular lens on your camera for a month and force yourself to shoot everything with it. In short, make the process harder, not easier. Make yourself uncomfortable.
One of my favorite mindfulness exercises come from shooting macro. It’s harder in every way from any other kind of work. Focus, composition, lighting and exposure are all exponentially more difficult at short distances, and that means a higher harvest of bad pictures(the photo shown here was the lone survivor among twenty frames). And that’s good, because that, in turn, makes it impossible to settle for your first frame. Or your twenty-first. And that means you have to try, adjust, compare, re-try. It takes time, all of it educational. But first you need to escape the realm of Snapshot Mind, a fun and carefree play land that digital makes especially seductive, but which can become a trap.
Of course, there is the phenomenon called “first thought, best thought”, in which amazing, fully realized images come right out of the chute, and very quickly. And there is no guarantee that, by simply taking your time, you will always use it wisely. But creating situations in which you must be more present, more deliberate, will, more often than not, show you how to shape and then re-shape your vision.
Turns out Rome really wasn’t built (or photographed) in a day.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SINCE I FIRST WROTE, several months back, about using my cellphone as a “sketch pad” for the first versions of images I would later finalize on a more adjustable camera (SLR, mirrorless, etc.), I’ve seen quite a few photographers confess to the same practice. As I said before, it’s not as if the cell isn’t a “real” camera, but that working with it is less mentally formal, less hemmed in by strict rules, than the cameras many of us cut our teeth on. At present, cells promote a more spontaneous, improvisatory approach to picture-taking: we produce work very quickly, and even our bombs have a short learning curve. We then make a second pass at the most promising “sketches” with cameras that both promote and reward deliberation.
Now I’m enjoying yet another variation on this formula as I play with the first instant film camera I’ve owned in nearly forty years. Optically, my Fujifilm Instax 90 is less precise than my mobile phone, and miles behind a full-function SLR. However, the “feedback loop” from snap to physical print rivals the turnaround time of a cell, and I have used some of these medium-fi images as dress rehearsals for shots that only my more advanced cameras can properly finesse. The main difference here is working with film, which translates to how fast and how freely I shoot.
Cels are technically limited, but you can shoot endlessly for free, so it’s tempting to experiment without regard to anything except the moment: very intuitive. By comparison, film is finite. More importantly, your shots, both home runs and strikeouts alike, all cost money. If you’ve never shot film (ya young whippersnappers!) it’s really a trip learning to “budget” your shots, weighing all the stuff you want against the physical limit of shots you actually have to work with. Old guys like me had lots of reasons to desert film for digital, but being freed from the tyranny of the wallet was my personal Numero Uno.
So, if you follow this strange line of reasoning, here’s where we stand: an instant film camera gives you a fast result, but the low volume of output (just ten shots per pack of Fuji Instax Mini film) and the cost (nearly a dollar per shot) means that you will be shooting slower and more deliberately than with a cel. You’ll be actively planning your shots, editing your projects on the fly, and producing a smaller yield of “possibles” to refine with a higher-end camera. Or you might do such a bang-up job with your film sketch pad that you produce your ” keeper” right then and there. In the two cases shown here, the Instax shot shows me that the central idea (the punctured shrink wrap atop the carton of Coke) can be improved by including a spent bottle on the side and tightening up the frame, allowing my Lensbaby Velvet 56 to show the textural variances in surface tension, something the Instax isn’t precise enough to do. The Lensbaby can also deliver a wider range of tones and deliver sharper focus, albeit within a soft glow.
Will this tortured method ever become your own? Really doesn’t matter. Your results may vary, as the man says, because they are yours. There are many routes to the promised land. Take the expressway or slog along the old dirt road. Just get the shot.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
GIVEN THAT THERE’S AN ELEMENT OF CHANCE in even the most carefully planned photographs, it’s tempting for me to think of some pictures as pre-existing, like a piece of fruit that might well hang on a tree forever unless you happen to walk by and pick it. People sometimes refer to such images as being “captured”, but maybe “harvested” is a better word.
That would explain the photographs that you don’t, or can’t plan, the ones that are unbidden but also undeniable. Of course you don’t ever have to take a picture, but under the right circumstances it can sure feel that way.
Which leads me to this image. I don’t understand a thing about it except that I had to take it. I can’t offer a thrilling backstory about its creation because I wasn’t its “creator”. I likewise can’t offer a thoughtful analysis or provide the illuminating context that makes its message shine forth. Honestly, this picture isn’t “about” anything, despite the fact that I’d love to spin you a thrilling tale, some revelatory saga that reflects my sheer genius. But eventually, the picture isn’t anything but, well, this picture.
In an instant, as happens to everyone, I had a second to decide to buy or not buy, and I bought. God knows why. We all love to think that everything in art happens for a reason, as part of a plan. We can often shy away from “pure” or “absolute” photography, but, if we’re honest, we can’t explain all of the images we harvest/capture/ stumble onto. We love to think we’re always in charge of our process.
But guess what……
SOME OF THE BEST PHOTOGRAPHS come riding in on the backs of the scrawniness stories, like Don Quixote limping into town astride Rocinante. To be sure, images are evidence, proof of a kind of a person’s various truths or journeys in life. But there are times when that evidence is scant, hidden, confined to the dimensions of a bone, the chip of a cup, The Dress She Loved.
Or a tool.
Like the camera itself, the tool is a device designed to work its wielder’s will. Case in point: the instrument at left, a punch for cutting holes into leather, a device which has no other official function than to execute the hand movements of the shoemaker who once owned it. A thing created to dumbly create other things.
But now, absent its master, it is also testimony.
With the shoemaker gone, the tool becomes a partial proof of his life, a defining characteristic of the way he made his living. It’s also a kind of miniature history of things in general, a living demonstration that, literally, “they don’t make ’em (or him) like that anymore”. In photographing the things people carried, which now must speak for them, I use the sharpest, most accurate lenses I can, using nothing but opaque backgrounds and soft window light, seeking the registration of every speck of patina, rust, discoloration or personalization available. For example, I love the worn fragment of leather glued to the left grip of the punch. I know, historically, that this particular tool was not originally made with any such pad or cushion, and so it had to have been the very human creation of its owner, an attempt to add a smidgeon of comfort to what must have seemed an endlessly repeating task.
I have photographed many artifacts from people I either knew too little or too briefly, from military decorations to cameras to scientific instruments to pocket watches. All reveal quiet stories about the vital beings who once thought of their quotidian uses as the stuff of forever. Now, weilding my own tool of trade, I can extend tiny bits of those forevers into a few more precious days.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
GIVEN THAT JOB ONE, FOR A PHOTOGRAPHER, is maximizing his ability to see, it’s worth considering how we unconsciously condition our eyes not to see….to, in a way, confer a sort of invisibility on whole big chunks of the viewable world. It’s not that those chunks can spontaneously vanish on their own: it’s that we, in the act of managing the everyday flood of sensory information, prioritize some data above others. The lowest priority data effectively becomes invisible.
Cities provide an interesting example of this phenomenon, which I term the Invisible Middle. The upper stories of the buildings in a metropolitan are clearly noticed as “treetops”, clusters of skyscrapers easily apprehended from a distance. Equally visible are the bottom, or street-level layers of cities, the door-to-door sequences of businesses that parallel our daily journeys, the very stuff of habit. By contrast, the details of urban life from just above our line of sight all the way up to the spires and crowns of the skyline can become phantom acreage, something our schedule doesn’t demand that we notice.
As one example, the building shown here, 452 Fifth Avenue in New York City, presents a magnificent face to anyone lucky enough to be in a position to crane their neck just a few extra floors above street level. Built in 1902, when a ten-story building was still a big deal in Manhattan, the Knox Building, named for Edmund Knox and the hat factory that made him a millionaire, was an anomaly from the start. Knox decided not to engage just any architect, but to hire John Hemenway Duncan, the man who had designed both the memorial arch at Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza and Grant’s Tomb, an act slightly akin to hiring Frank Lloyd Wright to build you a 7-11. Decades later, however, having survived years of attempts to raze it, the Knox landed on the National Registry, and in the 1980’s, got a new glass tower wrapped around it to make it the crown jewel of a major midtown banking complex. If one of Mr. Knox’ hats were still available, giving it a tip would be an apt gesture of respect.
This particular view was chiefly available to me because I was seven floors up in the building on the other side of Fifth Avenue. Vantage point gave me access to this part of the city’s Invisible Middle, but, more importantly, it left my eye hungry for more, and just a little more trained as to the complete range of places to cast my gaze. Because of this lucky accident, I may, in future, also do other good things….on purpose.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ALL REAL ESTATE IN A PHOTOGRAPH IS PRIME REAL ESTATE.
Space within a composed frame must be earned. Every element that doesn’t strengthen or streamline a picture’s narrative power is detracting from it. Remembering this simple rule makes editing as easy as it is essential.
It’s usually true that you add something to an image by taking something away from it. This can seem counter-intuitive when shooting landscapes, epic-sized collections of scenic…stuff, where wide-angle lenses rule the roost and it seems to just make sense to crowbar as many trees, mountains, and waves as possible into the scene, as if more will automatically be better. However, the same thing is true of vast vistas that is true of smaller ones: there are few photographs which are uniformly strong from top to bottom, end to end. You have to find the strongest core within the larger picture and pare the rest away.
I call attention to this because, slow learner that I am, I can often spend years coming to the conclusion that one of my pictures has been weakened or held back by a hyper-abundance of information. The topmost shot, an original from a 2008 trip to Carmel, California, is a case in point. None of the visual elements are particularly wrong: it’s more like they are simply too plentiful. There’s just too much sky, sea, and stone…..that is, far more than is needed to sell the story.
Worse, the grouping of birds at the center of the frame, which is potentially strong enough to economically make smarter use of all those other elements, is being buried under all the surrounding… padding. The eye is being asked what to prioritize as it wanders its way through too much picture. By comparison, in the second shot, reframed as a mostly horizontal composition with the birds bumped up to prominence, the picture is now telling the eye what to see.
Which only serves to illustrate that what is left out of an image is just as important as what is left in it. Just like you can muck up a story with too many plot lines, you can get in a picture’s way by making its narrative take too many detours. Say what you have to say in the cleanest way possible, and then drop the mic.