By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN THE POST JUST PREVIOUS TO THIS ONE, I tried to explain the value, at least to me, of learning how to shoot the most with the least….that is, to streamline my photographic equipment options to the bare minimum, teaching myself how to make any kind of picture over an extended period of time with just a single lens. Having read the accounts, over the years, of many others who have undergone the same experiment, I see several words emerge again and again…words like “freeing”, “mindfulness”, even “revelatory”. Far from being a mere stunt, taking one’s entire tool bag and winnowing it down to one universal tool is an exercise in seeing, in self-reliance, and, to a great degree, in establishing just who is making the picture….us, or our equipment.
The reason this has again occupied my mind in recent weeks is the insistence by my doctor that, following recent surgery, I could only be approved for my next vacation if I were willing to keep any kind of lifting as close to a zero load as possible. Now, it’s no great trick to bribe my wife into hoisting my suitcase onto the luggage belt, but trimming out my camera bag for light travel has proven more problematic. Now, I don’t quite tote the toy tonnage of a NatGeo photog when I fly, but my shoulders and neck can attest to the fact that I tend to pack quite a few “just in case” items, items which, upon my return from various locales, spent the entire trip sleeping in the bottom of the satchel. For this flight, then, it was both medically and mentally smart to see how stripped-out I could manage to be.
Of course, no single lens can do everything, but I find that, if I’ve been even halfway accurate in assessing where I’ll be going, I can closely predict what kind of likely shooting situations I’ll face…certain “knowns” that I can factor into my decision. For example, during the trip at hand, I am likely to spend a lot of time walking in city streets, and, since I can’t predict how tall the buildings or how cramped the composing space will be, I will need something fairly wide, meaning that 85mm or greater will probably not work. I will also probably, percentage-wise, be about 80/20 urban-to-rural for my subject matter, so I will not need anything like a telephoto for, say, landscape work. I can also safely bet that Marian and I will be out at night, so I need something fast, since I will be working handheld and want to keep ISO below about 1400 to hold down noise.
Finally, in thinking about some of the places I might visit, there is a smaaaalll chance that I may want my lens to be easily adaptable for macro work, as in, compact screw-on diopters that fit in a pocket. So, to summarize, I need a pretty wide, fast, macro-capable, non-zoom lens, something inside a compact, light body that will not add a lot of bulk or weight. Weighing all of these factors, I have chosen my 1970’s-vintage Nikon 24mm prime. Its biggest aperture is f/2.8, so there’s plenty of light to be had. It’s also wide without being so wide that buildings look bent over backwards and perspectives seem somewhat normal. Additionally, it’s sharp as a razor, fast to focus, small in size, and will take 52mm screw-on diopters to nail focus at less than 12 inches out. Additional benefit: if I attach it to a crop-sensor body, the 24mm actually works more like 36mm, making the lens flattering for portraits as well.
So will I fly with just one lens? I might. I could. If I can convince myself that I’m not missing out on anything by not packing more choices (relaxing my control-freak death grip by a little), I probably will. Or maybe I’ll just throw all the equipment I own into my suitcase and make Marian heft it onto the belt. Hey, she’s been working out.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN THE PRESENT PHOTOGRAPHIC ERA, the default frame for composition is, with some notable exceptions, a rectangle, the 3-to-2 ratio that is the descendant of Oscar Barnack’s first 35mm Leicas of the late 1920’s. Most of us have been taught to automatically compose in this format, a hard-wired habit that informs our entire concept of how to fill a frame. The “notable exceptions” I refer to are the square films that have accompanied the return of instant photography, the lomography movement with its square-framed analog film formats, and, by virtue of a built-in app choice, the mobile phone. Strangely, some of the most sophisticated cameras on the market do not allow you to shoot an original square image: the shot must be captured in a 35mm equivalent and cropped later. But that’s a rant for another day.
The thing is, if you don’t typically investigate square composition, you are robbing yourself of an important tool, or, more specifically, you are allowing yourself to always see subjects in the same “frame” of mind. There are distinct advantages to creating a square composition, not the least of which is that it forces the viewer to take in your picture’s information in a distinct way. While shots that are wider than tall are marvelous for any number of reasons, they do, in effect, invite the viewer to scan an image linearly, that is, to look left to right and back again. By contrast, the square reinforces its equal dimensions, almost forcing the eye into a continuously circular sweep of the contents. I hear people complain that a square just “doesn’t give me enough room to get everything in”: however, I would counter that argument by contending that, in many 3/2 compositions, there is a wealth of visual information that not only is not needed, but actively distracts the eye from the most interesting parts of the photograph. Think of a glass of ice tea that, over time, actually has more volume in it, due to melted ice, than was originally poured into the glass. More liquid, but a greatly diluted flavor.
The problem is not that many square images aren’t being made…far from it. It’s that they are, in many cases, being re-made from rectangular originals, in the editing process. We have to shoot wide and edit square. But therein may lie the best way for us to start seeing what a square composition can do, not merely to define the space of a picture, but to invite the viewer into it more efficiently. And it’s easy and cheap to do it.
Try this: select a series of wide master shots that you feel fairly strongly about, dupe work copies of them, and then crop new compositions within the copies. Junk the ones that don’t work and do as many re-takes as you see fit. Did any of the cropped images emerge as stronger without all that extra stuff you originally felt you had to include? And even if they did not, that’s also a good thing. The mere fact that you’ve begun to intentionally look for pictures within pictures means you’ve entered a new phase of your vision as a photographer. We’re certainly used to thinking of pictures that “came out pretty good’ as final or complete, but it’s a good thing to think of them instead as workable drafts. In the wider shot seen ay top, I successfully conveyed that people were stepping onto the roof of the Met museum in NYC, but I also got a lot of things in the shot that aren’t necessary to the telling of that story. The main tellers in the picture are the two women, who, like us, have just arrived. They are our surrogates or guides. Cropping actually makes the red of the sign in front of one of the women cry for your attention, guiding you to the women even as it partly conceals one of them. Additionally, the same top to bottom space that they occupy also shows part of the skyline that borders Central Park. The front to back scale of the shot says “on the roof, in the city”, at some distance.”
So judge for yourselves, as you would with your own pictures. Did anything I took away in cropping diminish the impact of the picture? Does the lower frame now feel open, cramped, or, in Goldilocks fashion, about right? Is there an appropriate emotional distance from the subject, or a welcome intimacy with it? Is there, in short, an overall net gain for the narrative power of the image once it’s been cropped? And most importantly, even if this experiment fails (with the wider picture still being stronger), haven’t I already begun to see every picture in at least two fundamentally different ways? New ways of seeing are among the most powerful tools in a photographer’s kit. The world of cameras may indeed default to a rectangle, but that doesn’t mean our brains need to follow suit.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE SHEER DURATION IN TIME REQUIRED TO MAKE A PHOTOGRAPH was, in the earliest days of the camera art, THE prime determinant of good results. Recording media was slow, and conditions had to be exhaustively massaged for a usable picture to be produced at all. Long exposures and other compromises made portraiture difficult and rendered many other subjects simply impracticable. Naturally, the forethought, the planning of an image was a conscious, deliberate process. If you wanted a photo, you had to prepare properly.
The emergence, around 1900, of the first amateur cameras, which made so-called “instantaneous”, hand-held exposures possible, ushered in the age of the “snap shot”, and meant that, suddenly, many millions of pictures were being produced each year. That revolution was later replicated at the dawn of the digital age, in which the time it took a camera to snap and deliver pictures became even shorter. That, in turn, created a secondary wave of mass amateur photography, as defined by the phone camera, creating a blinding hurricane of images produced far faster than a human could plan or pre-construct. In essence, we could take pictures almost quicker than we could think them through. And that, at least for me, is a problem.
The careful, contemplative aspect of photography, which originally had been forced on its earliest practitioners by primitive technology, is, of course, no longer a factor. However, slowing oneself down long enough to produce fewer but better pictures is still valuable, more valuable, in fact, than all our storied gear and toys combined. Walking along on a shoot, I have frequently felt this…. push at the back of my neck, this nagging urge to hurry up and get the picture, which actually means get any picture. And certainly that’s no tough feat, given the rapid response of contemporary cameras. However, a special kind of frustration comes later on, when I realize that, in being too eager to simply record a thing, I did not spend enough time to determine the best way to record it. I let the medium tell me when to click, with the primary emphasis on merely getting something in the can and moving on. Days later, looking at a series of technically adequate but artistically under-explored pictures, I feel a little sick. Turns out, the only thing worse than not being able to photograph something is to have had your chance and let your impulses propel you into mediocre results. In looking at such results, I initially respond with W.T.F. (if you don’t know what that is, Google it), then revise my jargon to W.T.R.(what’s the rush???).
As you no doubt can do with your own shots, I can now look at past photos and recall if I shot them at leisure, that is, with some intention or blueprint, or if I allowed myself to act as if I were on deadline. For instance, the above postcard scene could certainly have happened by happy accident if it were a stand-alone snapshot, but, in fact, it’s one of twenty frames taken on both sides of Columbus, Ohio’s Scioto River over the space of a half hour, since I was certain of my subject but unsure of how best to compose it. The point is that I came back with more choices than I needed on the thing I really came for, rather than shooting as many different things as quickly as I could.
I can’t over-emphasize the gift of time that only we can give ourselves when shooting. “W.T.R.” should always be echoing in our ears as a nagging question, and, if the answer is “no real rush in particular”, then take a beat, take your time, and make your pictures better. The camera can shoot faster than you can think, but that’s mainly because it isn’t troubled with thinking at all.
That’s your job.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
COMPOSITION IN PHOTOGRAPHS IS NOT MERELY A MATTER of getting everything you want into the frame, whether your subject is crowded or stark. It’s about both the arrangement of objects or patterns in a given space and the relationships those things have with each other. It’s a process which often makes photography as frustrating as it is thrilling. Or maybe a more precise way to say it is, composition is the frustration you endure to get to the thrill.
Yeah, I like that a little better.
Part of the method of composition, in what is essentially a flat plane, is the arrangement of your subject in such a manner that it creates the illusion of depth, a kind of invitation to the eye to look further “in”. There have been entire libraries filled with references to these so-called “leading lines” such as the trail-off on the pier you see in this ocean view. Everyone mentions it because, well, goldarn it, for a cheap little trick, it works pretty well. This particular image is about as rudimentary an example of faux depth as you can find, but nailing it involves a lot of little things that are quite variable from one situation to another.
Ansel Adams once half-jokingly said photography was largely about knowing where to stand, and it’s still the best compositional advice I’ve ever heard. Certainly in the case of this photo, where I chose to stand (a decision I changed and re-changed across the space of several minutes) made a huge difference in how the depth effect displayed the picture’s information. I was originally walking toward the pier at beach level, at which angle the front-to-back view of the pier tended to emphasize the information most near at hand, with the rest of the pier dramatically foreshortened or “squished”, like the contracted bellows of an accordion, and objects at the far end of the pier greatly reduced in detail or prominence. Standing beside the pier rendered it as a long left-to-right line reminiscent of a snake or a train. Lots of detail but not much drama, and no practical way to show the entire structure.
Walking to the second-floor landing of a beach restaurant at the head of the pier, however, gave me a sensation of distance that appeared natural and yet was a little more dramatic, the lines of the pier converging as they reached the horizon, just like your ninth-grade mechanical drawing teacher taught you to do. But that’s the process of composition in a nutshell: a combined approach consisting of what to include and how to include it, or like Ansel says, knowing where to stand.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS PASS A VERY IMPORTANT MILEPOST when they first learn that pictures can be both reliable and unreliable narrators. As neophytes, we assume that the camera doesn’t lie, that it is a trustworthy tool for capturing the truth, a kind of optically-based lie detector. Later, we learn that, in certain hands, the camera can also distort, mislead, and, certainly, lie. It’s a heartbreaking moment for some, while it’s almost freeing for others.
Bearing witness with a camera is a noble calling, but, even among the most ethical or clear-minded image-makers, there are visual stories that can’t be plainly told, tableaux in which the scene itself is a reluctant witness. Call them pictures without ample evidence.
Shooters can certainly use their interpretive skills to play connect-the-dots in many a photo, but what can be done when there aren’t enough dots to connect? In such cases, merely starting a conversation is the best one can hope for.
I simply had to record the scene you find here. I was walking with some friends toward an urban sewer tunnel from which thousands of bats were guaranteed to emerge at sundown, when, with one of our party nearing the rendezvous, I spotted the abandoned wheelchair you see at left. Clearly this was a case in which no photograph could be expected to “explain” anything, but which was visually irresistible nonetheless. The mixture of object and place equals…what? Why would someone bring a wheelchair to a semi-remote location, and then just leave it? Did someone experience a miracle cure that obviated any further use for the device? If so, why go to the trouble of dumping it out in the sticks? How does one dispose of an unwanted wheelchair? Had someone upgraded to a better model, and thus turned their previous unit into roadside litter? Was some semi-ambulatory adventurer off on a brief stroll in the area, eventually returning to the chair to rest in before heading home? Would someone seeing a picture of my friend walking away from the chair assume he had been its occupant? If so, what would they assume happened? And, of course, was I being dishonest for even including him and the chair in the same frame?
You can see where this is all going. The frame is hardly a “gag” or “gimmick” shot, and it’s not unique among photographs (mine or others) in posing more questions than it can possibly answer. Moreover, I certainly don’t have any explanation for the chair’s appearance that makes any sense, at least to me. And yet, I wouldn’t dream of not shooting the picture, as it’s too much of an “A” example of what happens when the photo itself is a reluctant, even hostile, witness.
Seeing may indeed be believing, even if you can’t actually decide what it is you’re being asked to believe.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I CALL IT “WINDOW SHOPPING“, the strange practice of taking random photographs while being driven through urban neighborhoods, usually in the back seat of an Uber, usually to or from a hotel or an airport. For any shooter who likes to engineer as much control as possible in their image-making (as is my own bias), cranking off shots out the side window of the back seat of a ride-share is the closest thing to complete chaos, and yet surprisingly exhilarating. It’s also good exercise for those occasional planned shoots in which you will need to react quickly, and hopefully with effect, under rapidly changing conditions.
The whole thing began for me several years ago with one of many trips I’ve made to and from New York, a place that, for a photographer, embraces both formal technique and shoot-from-the-hip spontaneity. I’ve had to teach myself to be more comfortable with the latter than the former, and so I have to regularly place myself in situations in which I’m forced to mentally shoot with, if you like, one hand tied behind my back. I have to make myself shoot looser and with less of a fear of loss-of-control situations. At some point, a boring cab ride to JFK gave me the perfect jumping-off point for such a project.
Think for a moment about how little I have to say about the conditions of this kind of shoot. The driver is taking me through neighborhoods I often know little about, so I can’t anticipate or plan. The speed of the vehicle, the smoothness of the ride, whether the “good stuff” is to the left or right of the car, and, certainly, when I’m about to behold anything with any potential all guarantee a kind of randomness. There are no warnings, no forecasts. Add to this that I will probably be shooting at full manual, meaning that, in addition to reacting in the moment to my subject and shooting conditions, I’m also throwing hundreds of frame-to-frame calculations about how to capture anything of value into the equation.
Not surprisingly, my yield is often 90% garbage, something that is also great for maintaining a sense of humility. However, the images that do work would never have been made at all had I not placed my precious precision in jeopardy. Thinking back to when I started, I, like many young photographers, disliked most of my pictures because there was always something I hadn’t understood, hadn’t planned for, didn’t yet know how to do. The paradox of this kind of machine-based expression is that you have to learn all the rules and then decide which ones you have no interest in following going forward. I often suspect that many younger shooters actually begin their careers at the opposite end of that continuum, starting at “what the hell” and eventually growing into more formalized technique. Doesn’t really matter. The important thing to remember is that both control and chaos can be useful, but they can both be imposters as well. A picture isn’t guaranteed to be wonderful because you cared and planned “enough”, and it certainly isn’t fated to be brilliant just because you cared so little. All roads don’t lead to Rome, but all roads also don’t lead away from it. From a window with shaky hands and a lousy Uber driver, or on solid, tripod-secure ground, you can be both the hero or the goat, given what’s happening between your ears.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE ALL ENTER THE WORLD FREE OF ENTANGLEMENTS, but even the simplest lives end in piles of….leftovers.
Detritus. Collections. Memorabilia.
The Romans might have had the right idea about a lot of things). Their word for “luggage” was impedimenta. Things that get in your way.
The recent death of a very old, sick man near my neighborhood has had, for some reason, a uniquely personal impact on my heart. Perhaps because his passing was so slow, so silent, more like a long fade-out than a sudden curtain. Perhaps because people in the area had known so little about him until a large storage bin was parked in front of his house to haul out the accumulated props of his lifetime. Most of the objects were emotionally sterile, like the rolls of peeled-up carpet or the shell of an old bathtub, items with no plain backstory in evidence.
And maybe that was what was oddly riveting about watching each succeeding batch of rubbish being carted out. The sadness of seeing that an entire life might, finally, amount to just so much broken garbage, so many banal, unknowable things. Things that would reveal little or nothing about the man around whom they briefly orbited. Items that could be anybody’s….or nobody’s.
So I did what I always do. I made a picture of the storage bucket. And then the bucket was gone. The noise of things being removed became the drone and drill of an empty house being remodeled for someone else to use. To fill with his own junk.
Then, two days later, the organ appeared.
A Lowry Pageant electronic organ, complete with coffeecup-ringed stool, apparently considered too good for the trash heap. Perhaps a poll was taken by the workers:
Do you want it?
Not me, I don’t play.
Nah, I got no room.
Perhaps someone actually said, well, we can’t just throw it out...
This called for another kind of picture. A picture of an instrument that, at one time, would have set you back the price of a small car. One of the first home keyboard instruments made before synthesizers that came with its own custom rhythm beats. Make you a one-man band, it would. What was on the program? Great Hits From Broadway? The Old Rugged Cross and Other Beloved Hymns? The Carpenters’ Songbook? I realized that, photographically, I was in different territory now. After all, a couch is just furniture, but a musical instrument is personal. Turns out a straightforward 50mm lens was fine for the trash bin shot, but I wanted to find some way to make the Lowrey, camped on the curb in front of the old man’s house, appear more…important than the free-to-good-home takeaway that it was. I finally decided that, while my 24mm prime would exaggerate the organ’s angles with a little more drama, my Lensbaby fisheye would bump up the distortion even more, allowing his house to also make it into the frame. One thing was certain: time was of the essence. Free things, especially free working things, go quickly in this neighborhood.
Sure enough, four hours after I made the picture, the Lowrey, as well as the last vapor of memory of the old man’s life, was gone. I’d like to think that some relative, somewhere, has a snap of him at the keyboard in better days. Some way to tie the man to the remnant. That’s what photographs do: they start the gears of speculation. What else happened? What else is true?
All teased by images, but never really delivered. Photographs are proof to some, unreliable testimony to others.
In the end, I got my picture, and, for a little while, my sadness at the old man’s leave-taking was salved.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR AN ART DEDICATED TO SHOWING THINGS, photography certainly involves itself with concealment.
It wasn’t always that way.
Its original, nineteenth-century mission, which coincided with the reshaping of the world by the Industrial Revolution, seemed to be all about showing everything…the ancient and modern wonders of the world, vanishing peoples, emerging cities, the geological mapping of the globe. Optical technology was bent upon making lenses more sensitive, more accurate. Likewise, recording media, from glass to metal to celluloid sought the same goal: verisimilitude. Then, as twentieth-century art movements became more introspective and less documentary, photography itself became more interpretive and less like….a camera? Abstraction spread into the snapping of pictures as it had in painting. And, eventually, like painters, shooters learned not only the art of revealing but the art of saying more by saying less. That which was once revealed became creatively hidden or underplayed, with the viewer entering into a kind of contest/game with the photographer. What does this look like to you?
I call this process additive subtraction, the means by which the storytelling potential of an image is actually enhanced by taking visual information away. This can be done by underexposing, cropping, the manipulation of depth-of-field, you name it. The point is that something is deliberately done in the composition of a picture which keeps us from seeing “everything”, from merely recording the scene. What is left can transform or mutate the original subject…make it tease, haunt, even lie. Interpretative photography is about imposing some part of one’s self onto the image, a nudge that asks the viewer to go on a hunt with us. Who’s there? What is that? Why is that? And, most importantly, who’s to say?
In recent years, I have been working with selective focus as a means of sculpting my storytelling. Setting depth-of-field usually is a front-to-back process, deciding whether sharpness will occur near or away from the lens. Selective focus works a little differently with different objects that are often in the same focal plane exhibiting different degrees of sharpness, forcing the viewer to head over to the precise compositional territory we wish to emphasize. This nudging of the audience’s attention can be done subtly or with the force of a baseball bat, and it takes a great deal of patience to master the lenses (most of them fully manual) that deliver the effect. In crowd shots, I find that a uniformly sharp image might make all faces appear equal, when, in fact, some carry their “messages” better than others. So why not control which faces are important, which stories matter more, and which ones just happened to be in the neighborhood when the picture was snapped? In the image seen here, the women at the center of the shot seemed to be having a conversation, while everyone else around the desk seems involved with solo tasks. Selective focus allowed me to turn the surplus people into props. They’re indistinct because, to me, the story works that way. Seconds later, of course, the human “center” of the image might shift in another direction completely. It’s purely subjective.
Photographs are always assumed to be letting us in on a secret, when, in fact, they may be hiding one (or several) from us….for good or ill, depending on your view. But that’s the thing: it’s your view, your method of talespinning. You set the terms. That’s another way of coming back to the subtitle of this blog….the difference between taking and making a picture.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOUR CAMERA IS FAIRLY CRAMMED with features and functions that may or may not help you make better pictures. Certainly, all are intended as conveniences or shortcuts, but, since no one will ever utilize 100% of their gear’s potential gimmicks, you alone must decide which menus and goodies will actually help you exercise the most control over your results, and which are merely distractions. Your own path as a photographer will decide the real value of your camera’s various add-ons.
One automatic setting that I personally toyed with for a time but now almost exclusively avoid is the so-called “burst” setting, which allows you to automatically snap a ton of images very quickly by merely depressing and holding the shutter button. Its appeal is chiefly in helping to track fast-moving activities, like sports, children, or any other rapidly changing situation that presents challenge in setting or formulating shots on the fly. The camera is basically taking pictures faster than you suppose that you could plan them yourself, the idea being that, upon review, something in that batch must be usable, with the also-rans just being deleted later.
But I really find this mode a detriment, not a bonus, simply because the entire picture-taking process has been handed over to the camera. The shooter is completely passive, a bystander to a machine that is now making all the decisions. It’s like spraying a fusillade of bullets over a wide arc in the hope that you’ll hit something…anything, and it’s about as far from purposeful picture-making as you can get. I realize that the fear of missing something great can be tempting, but taking a whole bunch of pictures real fast, none of which could be anything other than a technically acceptable accident, is not a creative decision. How can it be?
Listen, I get it. Things happen fast, and it takes a great deal of practice in shooting in changing conditions. But the idea that there’s no time to frame or conceive an image just because it’s in motion is a false one. Will some opportunities be missed if you have to compose and click in the moment? Sure. Will some choices be unproductive? Yes. But the results will be your results. The image you see above was taken in a concert environment, which is just as volatile as any kid’s baseball game or birthday party. Faces, physical blocking, postures and light change mightily from moment to moment. But there is still time to plan a shot. Yes, your reaction time is measured in seconds, but there is time. More importantly, you can change your mind about whether to try something. You have direct influence over what’s planned and attempted. The camera is carrying out your commands. That’s the important part: they are your commands.
The shot you see here is the product of about fifty shots that were either deleted on the fly or winnowed out in the editing process. But I know what they are because I shot them. That’s not my vanity talking: it’s just the difference between learning to trust yourself and handing that trust over to the machine. For me, the choice is simple.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE CREATION OF A PHOTOGRAPH IS, AT ONCE, A VERY SIMPLE ACT and one of the most complex of creative processes. It is both instinctual and intellectual, a thing of sudden inspiration and a constant weighing of variables. It is, simultaneously, a marveling at the random arrangement of all the stars in heaven, and an attempt to line them up in a pattern of one’s own desire. Few photographers have been able to consistently balance these disparate aims over the course of a career. Fewer still have been able to reduce the process to written wisdom as well, a quality which makes Henri Cartier-Bresson a prophet among poets. He not only defined human truth with his beloved Leica (which he called “the extension of my eye”) but also managed to speak about that miracle in a manner no less articulate than his grandiloquent images.
HCB’s career coincided with the rise of the great photographic feature magazines of the 20th century, like Life, Look, Parade, and Harper’s Bazaar, where a new kind of reportage was being invented on a daily basis, with photographs evolving from mere illustrations of mega-events to stories about people who lived their lives beyond the obvious ranks of fame and power. Photographers were entering into a more emphatically emotional role, both harvesting and inserting interpretive energy into what had formerly been a simple act of recording. Global displacements of individual humans, measured between the World Wars in the Great Depression and other seismic events generated image makers who could train their cameras to take the measure of joy and suffering in an incredibly intimate fashion. Cartier-Bresson’s beat, which was global as well, enhanced his eye for the universal, the common feelings that crossed cultural and geographical boundaries. But he was also helping to create a new way of seeing, a system that was equal parts brain and heart.
In describing what he would later call “the decisive moment”, that golden instant where subject and story reached their peak of impact, HCB described what, to him, was the aim of the enterprise:
For me, photography is to place head, heart, and eye along the same line of sight. It’s a way of life. (It is) the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event, as well as of a precise organization of forms.
Composition. Interpretation. Empathy. Narrative clarity. These became the mainstay elements of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work, the difference between just freezing something in a box and capturing something of fleeting but essential value. They also became the pillars of a discipline that would eventually be labeled “street photography”. Perhaps it was his practiced way of seeing which, late in life, led him back to painting, the visual medium for total control. It is one thing to learn to see, and it is something else entirely to be able to harness that vision, to make the camera execute it with a minimum of loss from the original conception. But the anticipation that something is about to happen keeps us addicted, and that in turn keeps us trying. As HCB himself recalled of the moments before the click, “I’m a bag of nerves waiting for ‘the moment’…and it wells up and up and it explodes…it’s a physical joy, dance, time and space all combined. Seeing is everything.” It is a testament to how perfectly Henri pre-conceived a composition that almost all of his photographs are exactly as he shot them, without cropping or re-framing of any kind. They were just that right…..the first time.
We all occasionally get seduced by equipment, techniques, fads, even windy essays like this one, veering from the central mission of our art. But that mission is as simple as it is elusive: seeing is everything. With it, you can light a candle against the darkness.
Without it, you are worse than blind: you are unknowing.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FEWER DEVICES HAVE SHORTENED THE DISTANCE between an artist’s thought and his deed like the camera. Unlike musical instruments, paint brushes, or other tools of the creator’s trade, the camera takes you from conception to completed act in a matter of seconds. Of course, that’s when everything else is going right….
There are times when even the seemingly immediate response of the shutter still lags behind the mind in conceiving a visual message, when super-fast still feels horribly slow. Some concepts sprout and die with the rapidity of heat lightning, with the photographer racing to traverse the distance from inspiration to execution, and, occasionally, failing. In such instances, such as the moment that the cab arrives or the light changes or someone is just urging you let’s go, you have to go for broke and gamble on your idea. Fortunately, even those instances in which your efforts seem to crash and burn are instructive. In aviation, the saying goes that any landing you walk away is a good one. I’d adapt that sentiment to read: any picture that shows any of what you were trying to portray is a step closer to the right shot.
But first you have to attempt it.
We’ve spoken at length in this forum about how the only picture you truly regret is the one you didn’t take, and, as cliched as that statement is, it bears repeating. Because among the shots that miss by a mile are the ones that only miss by inches, and those are the ones that keep us doing this. In the above image, I am scrambling. A lot. I am standing near the front entrance of what’s soon to become my former hotel, and waiting, waiting, waiting, for my wife to contact/hire a ride share service. I decide to burn away those unused moments by trying to catch the uniformed staff at their endless task of welcomes/goodbyes for guests connecting to curbside transportation. I’m pushing a carry-on, wearing a DSLR by a shoulder strap and trying to guess an exposure that I’ll have to try to hit one-handed. I’m seconds away from being ready when I’m told our ride is three minutes away. We have plenty of time to get to the airport, but just the same, I’m now on deadline. A short fuse. Make or break. I don’t want to dawdle needlessly, since, over a long weekend, I have already paused to frame enough shots that I have exhausted my allotted ration of marital goodwill. You know the moment. It’s somewhere between an exasperated sigh and the sentence, “are you still taking pictures?” I also hate to fight too ardently for this one, since I’m only half sure of not only the exposure but the concept in general. I should probably just grab by bag and git.
Even at this point, I still can’t decide if I got everything I wanted here. I liked reducing the greeters and their gear to silhouettes, but in doing so I also eliminated a lot of the glowing gold of a late San Francisco afternoon. I said a quick prayer, squeezed off four shots with small adjustments in between, and decided I had to make a dignified exit. But what I said earlier about near misses still applies here. It’s not a complete boff, but it’s not a contest winner either. Can I use the experience to deliver a better result from a similar situation sometime in the future? Ah, well, that’s why we call this thing we do an “art” and not a “science”. I will live to fight,….er, shoot, another day. And that’s all any photographer wants anyhow. The next shot.
For therein lies redemption…….
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SHOOT ENOUGH PHOTOGRAPHS AND YOU’LL ESTABLISH SOME KIND OF STANDARD of acceptability for your images….the inevitable “keeper” and “failure” piles by which we measure our successes (or lack thereof).
Now, we could fill pages with reflections on just how rational we all are (or aren’t) when it comes to editing ourselves. It’s a learned skill, one that’s practically a religion to some and a virtually unknown process to others. Be that as it may. Let’s assume for the purposes of this exercise that we are all honest, conscientious and humble when it comes to dividing our pictures into wins and losses. Even granting us all that wisdom, we are often less expert about whether a photograph is “worthy” than we think we are. You’d think that no one would know whether we took a bad image that we ourselves. But you’d be wrong, and often, wrong by a country mile.
Just as we are never so purely objective that we can be certain that we’ve generated a masterpiece, we can be just as unreliable in declaring our duds. I was reminded of that recently.
I have a lot of reasons to regard a given picture as “failed”. Some have to do with their effectiveness as narratives. Some I disdain because they’re nothing more than the faithful execution of a flawed idea. But the pictures of mine that the waste can catches the most of are simple technical botches….pure errors in doing. I’m old enough to hold certain rules of composition, exposure or focus as sacred, and I’m quick to dump any image that contravenes those laws.
That’s why the picture you see here was originally something I had intended to hide from the mother of the manic young man in the foreground. I had attempted, one afternoon, to use a manual focus lens to track four very energetic boys, and in one shot their ringleader had made a sudden lunge at the camera that threw him into blur. Seemed like a simple call. I had blown the shot, and I was naturally eager to show his folks only my best work.
But the impact of the picture on the boy’s family was much more positive. Blurry or not, the picture captured something very true about the boy. Call it zest, enthusiasm, even a little craziness, but this frame was, to them, more “like him” than many of the more conventional shots I had originally chosen to show them. The real-ness of his face had, for his family, redeemed the purely operational imperfection that so offended me. To put it another way, my “wait, I can do it better” was their “this is fine just as it is.” Sadly, it was my wife who brought me to my senses and convinced me to move it to the “keeper” pile.
Which circles back to my first point. None of us absolutely know what our best pictures are. We do absolutely know the ones that connect to various audiences, but that may be a completely different pile of images from the ones we label as “right”. Passing or failing a photo largely on technical grounds would, over history, disqualify many of the most important pictures ever made. We have all emotionally loved things that our logical minds might regard as having fallen short. But, in photography as in all other arts, we’re often fortunate that logic is not the sole yardstick.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVER SINCE ADAM AND EVE BIT THAT DAMNED APPLE, humans have demonstrated that the thing they really want is the thing they are told they can’t have.
Stay with me here: this actually has a lot to do with photography.
Deny somebody something and they will long for it, lust after it, obsess about it. Consider the case of the Portugeuse, who, for a while, tried to run things in Mozambique, in order to harvest that African nation’s rubber, and who told the locals that their traditional ceremonial instrument, an early kind of xylophone called the mbila, would henceforth be forbidden as a cultural expression. As a result, an entire underground of information on how to play it was maintained by exiled miners, prisoners, and assorted other rebels. The result? Eventually the Portugeuse left: the mbila stayed. Today, the instrument is even featured on the local currency.
We can’t have it? Wanna bet?
Humans. Go figure.
But back to photography, where, similarly, the thing we are “told” we “can’t have”, at least in an image, is whatever is left out of the frame. Missing detail. People rendered in shadow. An activity that’s implied by the manner in which part of it is cropped. We love what the photographer shows but we hunger for what he leaves out.
Out-the-window shots are a great source of this phenomenon, since shooters are usually forced to expose for either what is in front of said window or beyond it….but seldom both. The rise of HDR and tone mapping in recent years has tried to address this, rendering everything in the same degree of illumination, often with bracketed exposures, from light to dark, that are blended afterwords in software. But there’s a problem. Many HDR’s are simply over-processed, defying the mind’s knowledge of the proper relationships between light and dark. Everything’s visible but can easily be garish, unnatural. And so many of us go back to simply deciding what selected parts to illuminate in an image, and which to leave undefined. That means some darkness, which in turn means some things don’t get shown. And, if we’re lucky, those things that we don’t reveal can be more tantalizing than those that we do.
I was walking around the back of the old Terminal building in San Francisco, which is the place that all the city’s ferries used to dock and disembark before the Golden Gate Bridge was built, making many daily boat trips across the bay unnecessary. The building now houses eateries, produce stands, and an insane amount of tourist traffic, much of it crowded into restaurants such as the one seen here. The view out the back includes the Bay Bridge and the local ship traffic, as well as the occasional sailboat, such as the one seen here. I exposed for the scenery, leaving the restaurant’s patrons and workers in shadow. The scalloped, rather “peek-a-boo” view that resulted keeps the image from being a standard postcard shot, but while that “purity” is lost, what’s gained is a smidge of mystery about the shadowy folks in front. What are their conversations about? Why are they here?
I am just suggesting here that, instead of always regarding an image like this as a “blocked” or “obstructed” view of a scenic vista, you can choose to tantalize your viewer by providing a partial reveal of both foreground and background, since their inclination is already, like that of Adam and Eve, to obtain what they’re denied (in this case, by the exposure and the limits of the frame). Sometimes, in a photograph, a nothing can be a very important something. It all depends on who’s looking and what they themselves bring to the experience. In that way, they and the photographer are having a conversation. Which is kind of the idea.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE’VE SPOKEN A FEW TIMES HERE about the snapshot mentality, that hard-wired sense of urgency that seems to accompany nearly all picture-making….the flashing red light that screams Hurry. Get the shot. It’s a nagging feeling that we’re missing something great, that we’d better stop wasting time and start clicking. This hair-on-fire sensation may have come originally from cameras that were too slow or clumsy to operate, resulting in many lost opportunities. Then, as both cameras and film became more responsive, the idea that we could crank off a frame almost as quickly as the action of a special event spurred us on even further. Many generations and millions of personally precious occasions later, we almost always shoot on instinct. It takes practice and deliberation to slow down and actually plan a shot.
But the world is not composed solely of kids blowing out birthday candles or Bob being surprised by his retirement party, and there will always be times when, as far as photography is concerned, there is literally no big rush. Thing is, we have to retrain ourselves to sense what those moments are, and enjoy the luxury of being able to linger, even to leave, come back, reconsider, and re-shoot in an attempt to get the additional dimension that only comes from taking one’s time. This is an increasingly difficult habit to form, since we have so long married the instantaneous or fleeting quality of many situations to the way we take pictures. People who think too much about this kind of stuff have sold scads of books with the words contemplative or mindfulness in the title, but it really is just about slowing down long enough to let ideas percolate, for better pictures to emerge.
It is certainly true that technology has allowed us to make acceptable pictures of nearly anything, our cameras taking many decisions (including careless ones) out of our hands, trying, in essence, to anticipate what we probably “want” and attempt to give it to us. The aggravation of what results when we turn over the keys completely to these brilliant but non-intuitive machines, the gap between what it serves us up and what we truly seek, is the reason behind the blog you’re reading right now. The Normal Eye is dedicated to those times we wean ourselves off auto-settings, electing to both ask and answer our own questions, relegating the camera to its proper status….that of a servant. Part of the taking back of that control is placing yourself in situations where it’s okay, even optimum, for you to just simply cool your jets and think.
The frame you see here is #18 out of twenty shots taken toward a busy suburban road as seen from a roadside pond. The surface of this small lagoon is usually filled with concentric ripples from a centrally located fountain which is nearly always turned on, so in many cases, I could not dream of the reflections seen here. That idea alone was enough to make me pull off the road and park. Several of my first tries were framing disasters; a couple of others were taken from an opposite angle and contained too much clutter: and then there was this one, which was preceded by several in which the road was just crammed with late afternoon traffic. Frustration was mounting. I wasn’t getting what I wanted. Indeed I wasn’t sure I even knew what I was going for.
But then the lightbulb moment. This scene was going to remain stable for a while. Nothing could be lost by quitting the scene for a few minutes and approaching the whole thing with refreshed concentration.
I took a walk.
Five minutes had, indeed, made a difference in the intensity of the local traffic, which, in turn, gave me an idea for something that the picture could be about, as I saw a lone bus approaching from the leftward edge of my peripheral vision. Suddenly I had just enough context to at least imply a story. Whereas dozens of vehicles were just visual litter, a single bus could anchor the picture, add scale to the scenery, or at least tell the eye where first to focus. Ironically, I had a “snapshot’s” worth of decision time in which to snap the shutter before the bus passed out of frame, so, even though I had taken extra minutes to get the shot I wanted, I only had seconds to recognize that it had arrived. In the final analysis, I would have had, at least in my own mind, much less of a picture if I had settled for the first, perfectly adequate rendering of the scene. I had benefited by not having to make up my mind in an instant. Contemplative? Mindful? Who knows? To me, it’s just enjoying the luxury of those instances in which I can afford To. Just. Wait.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
TO CONSIDER A PHOTOGRAPH “FINISHED“, I have to be at peace with the choices made in creating it. I can take either an active or passive role in making an image, each role with its own set of choices. At the most active end of the scale, I might be shooting completely on manual, micromanaging every step of the process, making what I call shaping choices. At my most passive, I might be snapping in full automode, which means, after the camera makes its own arbitrary decisions, my choices are merely editorial, with me choosing my favorites from among a group of photos essentially taken by “someone else”.
“Live” performances can be a challenge for me whether I’m shooting actively or passively. The stakes are as follows:
Shooting on manual (actively) means making lots of adjustments in the moment, with action progressing so quickly that, even at my fastest, I may miscalculate or simply miss a key opportunity. In short, I could work really hard and still go home with nothing. Or I could follow my instinct and bag a beauty.
Now let’s say I shoot passively, using a mode designed for such situations. Some cameras call this mode “continuous”, while others refer to it as “sports” or “burst”, but it simply refers to the camera’s ability to crank off several frames per second, making all necessary adjustments to aperture, shutter speed, autofocus and ISO on the fly with just one touch from the shooter. Since the camera can make these shifts much faster than any human, you’ll have scads of shots to choose from, nearly all of which will be technically acceptable. You lose control over everything except choice of subject and composition, but you do get the final say over what constitutes a “keeper”, such as the image of a flamenco dancer you see here, which was caught on burst automode. Your choices are less creative and more editorial, and, if you disagree with all of the “other photographer’s” choices, you’re just as out of luck as if you had shot everything manually but hated it all. Wotta world, am I right?
As photographers, we choose subject matter, and then choose the best way to approach capturing it, based on whether you rate assistance from your camera as a bane or a blessing or something in between. Methods are a personal matter, but making a choice of some kind is key to comprehending what is happening in the picture-making process, and what role you want to play in it.
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.