By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU’VE LIKELY EXPERIENCED IT: I call it shutter lock, the photographer’s equivalent of writer’s block. You have the subject. You have opportunity. And you certainly have motive. But the picture won’t come.
More specifically, the right picture won’t come. You’ve chosen the wrong angle. The wrong aspect. It’s lost in a sea of busy. Or it’s just…well, hiding. Your perfect shot has now become some frustrating game of Where’s Waldo? Should you move on? Reconsider? Or in Oz’ words, simply “go away and come back tomorrow”?
And then you move a few inches. You walk around your quarry and something else about it begins to speak, first in a whisper, and then, in a clear, loud voice that says, “of course”. And you make the picture.
My recent and most stubborn case of shutter lock has been on me since the start of our Great Hibernation, a time when photographers have flooded social media with ideas for “projects”. Essays. Statements that will sum up What We’re All Going Through. And more than a few challenges to find all that Supreme Truth in a self-portrait. How is this affecting you? How has it reshaped your features, the part of your soul that seeps though haunted eyes or pursed lips? I was fascinated by that idea, of course, and why not? We all love to explore ourselves, to regard ourselves as our own True North. But I wasn’t capturing it, or at least enough of it. I was staring at a landscape that I couldn’t turn into a picture.
And then I stopped looking inward. Selfies can certainly reveal our inner dialogues, but all my own face was registering was a kind of unreadable…numbness. And so I moved about thirty inches, and she was there.
Marian is always there at my most instructive moments of clarity. She hacks through my busy clutter and lets enough air into my brain to allow me to see sense, and regain my bearings. The most wonderful thing about it is, she often doesn’t know she’s doing it. There is was, on her face, the look I was seeking, and missing, on my own. A mix of grim resolution, hope, helplessness, exhaustion. Not a look of absolute despair….more like a dead serious attempt to re-focus, to keep swimming against the tide. Suddenly her face was not only a better expression of my own journey but everyone’s. It felt universal, beyond language. In short, it looked like a photograph.
And now it is one. I took it with the crudest camera I have, under the worst conditions possible. And then I tortured it even more in an app to make it appear antique enough to feel relevant to all crises, all dark nights of the soul. It’s technically a wreck, and yet I’m proud of it. Proud of myself for getting outside myself in order to see it. Proud of it as a possession. And proud to allow my partner to be The Interpreter.
FIAT LUX, Michael Perkins’ newest collection of images, is now available through NormalEye Books.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I AM A PHOTOGRAPHER WHO MAKES PICTURES OF BIRDS, but I cannot rightly be called a bird photographer. This is not cute double-talk: there is a mile of difference between a generalist, who occasionally shoots a lot of specific things every once in a while, and a dedicated artist who shoots those same things almost exclusively. One person is a dabbler who occasionally makes a few cookies from a mix. The other is a master chef. That said, then, what follows is both a love letter to the chefs and bit of a starter’s guide for the dabblers.
The fact is that, in more recently coordinating my shoots with birders who really know a budgie from a boomerang ( I assume there is one), I am in the field trying my luck to a far greater degree than I ever have been before. Essentially, this means speeding up my learning curve by taking a whole bunch of bad pictures in a shorter space of time. The bad pictures have to be a part of any serious new shooting discipline, and so I am at least getting them out of the way in a few years’ time instead of a few decades. Deliberately throwing yourself into a decidedly uncomfortable place (.i.e., not knowing what you’re doing) is good from several standpoints. First, it’s humbling, and a photographer without humility has stopped learning and has slid into mere habit. Second of all, uncertainty slows you down, meaning that there is both contemplation and planning in every shot. You might still get stinkeroo pictures, but at least you know why they happened.
A big part of the uncertainty in shooting birds is that you are either using your familiar equipment in unfamiliar ways, or using unfamiliar equipment, meaning you’re actually on two parallel learning tracks, one for figuring out what to shoot and the other determining how you’re going to do it. Your knowledge of composition, autofocus, and exposure rate will all be called into question and re-combined in ways that may seem strange. Warning: if you do need to re-tool, there will be a strong urge to go full tilt boogie and break the bank on state-of-the-art lenses. This could entail several thousands of dollars, and, since you will still have to go through the all-my-pictures-came-out-lousy phase, it will make you angry, and then it will make you quit. Do what you did during the first phase of your photographic career. Buy the simplest, easiest-to-use gear that gets the job done and work it to death until you actually outgrow everything it can do, and then upgrade to the bazillion-MM howitzers.
But let’s get back to humility, which will serve you better than all the gear in the world. In bird photography, you’re working with subjects that are more uncooperative than the grouchiest portrait subject you’ve ever faced. You must be okay with it when Plans A, B, C, and D go awry. You may not be shooting fast, but you must shoot with a fluid state of mind. And then there is patience: if waiting for a traffic light to change gets on your last nerve, you might want to stick to still life. Wildlife don’t care if you’re having a day, and part of the fun is sweating out an entire outing and coming home empty. So, yeah, there’s that.
And even though we’re primarily talking here about shooting birds, the same concept applies in any fresh area of photography, anytime you become, in effect a fledgling, allowing yourself to be kicked out of the nest of your accumulated comforts. Because, in making yourself do something so very different in its approach, asking something undiscovered within yourself, all of your other photographic instincts will widen as well. Sure, “winging it” can look like desperate flapping. But sometimes it can look like soaring.
(Michael Perkins’ new collection of images, Fiat Lux: Illuminations In Available Light, is available through NormalEye Books.)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THIS ONGOING CHRONICLE, for anyone who is relatively new to it, is more about the motivations, rather than the methods, behind photography. The mechanical techniques of snapping a picture can only ensure that you will, in fact, produce an image. Everything else….the shaping, the conceptualizing, the intention of making a picture, happens outside the camera, inside yourself. What I’m leading to here is that, between you and your device, your device is far less crucial. This is why people can take good pictures with bad cameras, and why you can make a lousy image with a Leica. If I believed that photography was, like xerography, just a means of recording, then I could have saved you and me both the meanderings and mutterings of the last nine years.
Photography is a strange art because it begins with real subject matter and renders it surreal. Once an instant is yanked out of its rightful place in the orderly crawl of time, once it’s isolated and arrested in its flight forever, it becomes something else than what we first aimed at. We make a decision, in the present, to preserve something, and, in that instant, that object becomes something ago. Part of the past. Not only that, but it takes on the biases of the shooter, who decided that this light, rather than that light, should be the storytelling medium, that this composed frame should be chosen over all other possibilities. We dedicate ourselves, in a sense, to making things look “real”, while the very act of photography renders that reality null and void. The final picture of a thing is either real-plus, or real-minus, but, being filtered through both the camera and our own perceptions, it can never be merely “real” again.
We also decide what is worth photographing, as if the act of taking a picture of something could confer importance on it. Certainly, we are right at least some of the time. Some moments are, by their own nature, vital, essential to an understanding of the world. But then again, who is to say what’s meaningful and what’s banal? Perhaps the best thing you can say about a photograph is that it’s an argument, like a summary made before a jury. Well argued, the photograph is seen by one’s peers as necessary, as having added something to the overall experience….that is, the jury finds for your “truth”. Badly made, the argument that is a photograph is rebuffed or, worse, ignored. When I use the phrase the normal eye as the title for this screed it, means the process of teaching the eye to see in its own way, devoid of the interpretations or prejudices of others. To develop your most normal way of seeing. The trick of selecting little seconds of time to steal and preserve is quickly taught, in the purely mechanical sense. But as we soon learn, that’s only the first baby step in the quest for a photograph. That inner journey takes a lifetime.
(the image seen on this page is part of a new collection of Michael Perkins’ images, “Fiat Lux: Illuminations In Available Light”, available from here from NormalEye Press.)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I FIRST ENCOUNTERED THE WORD MONOGRAPH in the early pages of Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study In Scarlet, as I was just becoming acquainted with the thoroughness of Sherlock Holmes’ deductive process. The word was applied to, in this case, an extensive study of different kinds of cigar ash as a tool in the identification of criminals, but I came to know the word to denote a collection of thoughts around a common central subject, an examination of a theme over much time and many case histories. And, while the word is predominantly used to label written studies….collections of essays, the building of a theory, etc., I have always admired the “monographs” which have become the signature works of great photographers.
Robert Franks’ iconic The Americans is surely a monograph, as his eye builds a mosaic-like profile of this country across all its race and class lines. The first eerie series of portraits by Diane Arbus is also a monograph, as is Edward Steichen’s staggering museum exhibit The Family Of Man. In this age of self-publishing, it’s possible for photographers to organize book collections of their work along whatever thematic lines they choose, and, even though its role is vastly different in the present century, the book format is at least a way to contain one’s theme within fixed physical borders. And that may be why I still find it a comfortable format.
It’s been some time since I tried such a project (such as the one with which this blog shares its title), mostly because I never seemed to have quite enough images to flesh out the theme I was trying to present. And then there’s the problem of subject matter. People naturally expect photo collections to be “about” something, and the thing that unifies a set selection of pictures for me may be absolutely meaningless to the viewer. But with the distance of some twenty years of shooting in the digital domain, I’ve given it another go. My new book Fiat Lux (Let There Be Light) is nothing more than a chance to examine, in as broad a variety of pictures as I can, of the properties of “available light”. I never set out to deliberately boycott flashes or artificial illumination, but I find that the preparation that accompanies their use tends to slow me down and make me lose shots. Moreover, I find that the modeling properties, mysteries and drama of light often makes it the star of a picture all by itself. Most importantly, I see the original object of photography, that is, harnessing light to one’s purpose, as its most enduring and seductive feature, and I always choose the most direct route, from simple cameras to fast lenses, to achieve that goal.
The other objective in compiling Fiat Lux is to force myself into an editorial conundrum. I deliberately kept the total number of images in the book low to make myself make tough choices about (a) whether I have a style at all, and (b) which shots are essential to an understanding of that style, assuming I’d vanish off the earth tomorrow with nothing but this slim volume to explain myself to interested parties. I’ve had several people ask me, over the years, why I didn’t “just put out a book”, but, of course, I never “just” do anything, and so a certain amount of self-doubt and agony has gone into the process. Anyway, if you are so inclined, a sneak preview of some of the collection’s pages, as well as the option to order it, can be found here. Is it a monograph? Perhaps more of an autograph. Or an autobiography. Captions and labels are pretty useless, anyway, if the pictures aren’t there. The important thing is to show what you can show, and move on to the next picture. Thank God there’s always another picture.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF YOU REALLY THINK YOU KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHY, take a moment to consider what you typically shoot. After all, there comes a point, with practice and experience, at which you will get pretty good at making pictures of the things you’re used to making pictures of. Shoot enough skyscrapers and you can eventually become The Skyscraper Guy. But then, in the pursuit of humility, start making 100% of your shots of something about which you know next to nothing. Better still, shoot things that seldom, if ever, pique your interest….and then see how you do.
I am on record in these pages as admitting that I am always playing defense when it comes to nature work. It’s not my first interest, and it’s far from my comfort zone. However, I do derive enjoyment from the thought that I might ,at some point, have a chance of getting better at it. That’s not the same as actually getting better at it, but…..
Over the last five years, I’ve begun to dip my toe into work with birds, mostly because it allows me and my birder mate to do more things together. However, on many expeditions in search of the Rump-Roasted Titbill or the Green-Throated Flipwing I am as likely to shoot the surrounding wildlife as I am the official quarry, simply because I know, at some level, that my success with birds is random and unpredictable. In short, I may actually have the wrong personality to be good at capturing the little darlings.
First of all, I only possess the cardinal (sorry) virtue of patience in limited supply. That’s not helpful, since, as I hinted at the start, shooting outside your comfort zone will instantaneously reverse-morph you back to the clueless twelve-year-old you were when you first picked up a camera. And yes, bird photography is that different, in that it has many exclusive techniques that no other kind of photography will completely prepare you for. And then there is the expense. Basic cameras will occasionally (underscore that word) bring you good results, but the precision required for the best bird work, the “ahh”-inducing shots, can only be had for money. A good deal of it. It’s just a fact that we’ll never know how many of us would have become excellent bird photographers simply because many cannot afford the gear necessary to produce the best results. That’s not sour grapes, no more than it is whiny to say that I can’t explore the surface of the moon with a $100 pair of binoculars.
So what’s to do? Well, decent pictures can be made with modest equipment, but the work will be harder, and the accumulation of skill will be exponentially slower. The bird shots that I truly like come from approaching birds as I might a human subject, that is, by observing behavior long enough to get a sense of the bird as a “person” the way I might with a portrait subject. The more time I spend with an individual bird, the more I convince myself that I am locked into his thoughts or reactions. Of course, I could just be crazed with the heat (always wear a hat), but that mindset just barely gives me the courage to try something I will likely not do very well for some time to come. Humility, on the wing. Cool.
Now, can I go take a picture of a skyscraper?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SO MUCH OF THE GREATER WORLD SEEMS SO PERISHABLE under our present Great Hibernation that one’s mind goes naturally to things of more lasting value. The more that contemporary concepts of “permanence” vanish like smoke, the more the photographer in me values the artifacts of a life that still remain close at hand. Access to the fuller world is often denied me these days, but, here, inside the compound, there is a renewed opportunity to visually reassess the things I have carried with me over a lifetime.
This has led me to try to create what you might call formal photographic “portraits” of various ephemera around the house, from weathered old coats to favorite records to…books. For me, a person who has entertained a collector’s fetish with so many kinds of playthings and pastimes over the years, everything always seems to come back to books. The printed word, and the physical packages in which it came, harnessed my passion before music, before photography, before even romantic love. And, if we’re talking about a consistent source of comfort, books have acted as one of the most permanent and reliable anchors to earlier versions of myself. I leap between covers, and I vanish, emerging re-centered, fuller and finer than I was before the plunge.
In trying to photograph the oldest surviving book in my collection, I found a lot of techniques left something visually unsaid, delivering images that were too cosmetically clean, too charming. The book you see here has been with me in high times and low since 1963. It was probably the first hardback book that was truly mine, not one just plucked out of my parents’ library. For my picture, it needed to look traveled, well explored. It needed the historical gravitas of a few creases and stains, to look like a book that was important enough to be revisited and revered over a lifetime. After several attempts that looked, well, flat to me, I decided to go into my old trick bag and shoot it as an HDR. I had not used the technique for a while, since the acuity of current camera sensors has improved to the point where shooting and blending several bracketed exposures just to reproduce the full dynamic range of tones from dark to light was now as easy as squeezing off a snapshot. But in the case of my library’s longevity leader, I needed the over-accentuated detail that sometimes turned me (and others) against HDR: a look which would record and underscore every defect and scar, freeing them to speak a little louder. Another thing that argued for the technique: years prior, I had made a picture of my wife’s old 45 rpm record storage case, an item similarly, vigorously loved. HDR would deliver the warts-and-all portrayal I was seeking.
In the end I eschewed the full-tilt effect in favor of a milder blend called tone compression, boosting the detail but stopping short of making things too surreal. Finally, I had a picture that made the book look as if it had actually been used, rather than flawlessly archived. I had loved that book into longevity, and now, like the proud lines of survival etched on the face of a human subject, the tome was capable of fully flaunting its flaws.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE A BIT LIKE AUTHORS OF WRITTEN MEMOIRS, in that they have to constantly worry about their trustworthiness as narrators. Armed with a machine that can shape perceptions and even influence history, can we be relied upon to tell the truth (if anyone can agree on what the truth is)? One of the key “tells” of a photographer’s veracity should be his or her ability to showcase themselves in a portrait. But that, in terms of honesty, is actually where most of the mischief occurs.
This seems counterintuitive. How can we not be the ultimate authority on how we look, or how we should be visually captured? Some of it may be how the portrait, and the selfie in turn, has evolved over the centuries. When photography was new, having your portrait “made” was an attempt to make a document of yourself. To record the official version of you. Opportunities to do so were expensive and sparse. Once photography became a mass-appeal hobby, the snapshot made portraits less formal, and, in turn, less important. People went, within a generation, from having one or two pictures made of their faces to having hundreds snapped. In recent years, even more drastic changes in ease and convenience have squared and cubed that number, as we pose for more images of ourselves than we can even put a number to. And, along the line, we have become better and better at hiding more of what we consider the boring or bad parts from the omnipresent camera.
I have been trying for weeks to think about what The Quarantine has collectively done to the human face, and how that can be documented. Some visual impacts, like strap marks on the faces of surgeons or grief carved onto the features of the bereaved, are readily apparent. But how to measure photographically what the crisis has done to our insides? What of those costs are even readable on our faces? Suddenly, a very special opportunity, or obligation, is re-connected to the selfie. Now, in the interest of truth-telling, we must un-learn the clever tricks that allow us to regularly look in the camera and lie, creating false images that say I’m doing fine. My life is great. I don’t need any help…
What you see here is an experiment. It’s not really “posed” in the standard sense, as I shot it as part of a rapid series that allowed me only minimal time to prepare, or, if you will, overthink what my expression “should be”. This is thus a piece of me, in the context of these days, but it’s not the entire story. It’s, if you will, less of a lie, but also less of the complete truth about whoever I am these days. I’m not completely untrustworthy as a narrator, but whole big parts of me are still fighting the process of baring it all. Maybe I can’t get there. Maybe none of us can. But photographers are charged with looking for answers, even if they fail in completely nailing them down.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU GET NO ARGUMENT FROM ME if you make the claim that photographic portraits are lies. I can’t see how they could be anything else.
Well, maybe the word lie is too negatively loaded, so let’s use faulty. Faulty works because both subject and photographer are up to some little games, conscious or no, once the camera comes out. They pose. We enhance. They edit out unwanted emotions. We choose the “real” image from several “failed” frames. Most importantly, we influence the results with either an overabundance of knowledge, and bias, regarding the subject, or with the opposite….a completely raw ignorance of who, really, is in front of our lenses. This is the natural subjectivity that we bring to photographing anything, and it is by putting our individual interpretation on it that we get something we call “art”.
At this writing, a storm is raging over what constitutes an appropriate portrait subject in a medium that far predates the camera…stone. Statues are the snapshots of the ancients, and, because of the human factor involved in their sculpting, they are as biased and distorted as anything that comes through a modern lens. Either the sculptors were commissioned by people who had a point to make, or else they themselves decided to make said point. These honorific slabs are idealizations, no less than a heavily Photoshopped portrait of a cute infant. No one ever set out to create a statue that made the subject appear weak, or hateful, or anything less than glorious, and such a baseline bias means the results will be skewed, from the figure’s rippling muscles to his chiseled jaw to his resolute gaze to the way he sits a horse. For good or ill, a statue is an artistic attempt to create perfection out of a mix of fact, legend and marble.
Problem is, once the real person who inspires a sculpture vanishes from the earth, the statue becomes the only record of him, flawed or not. In the age of photography, we can do some comparison shopping when formulating our concept of, well anyone. Picture “A” makes him look happy, but he was drunk when we snapped Picture “B”, he was morose in Picture “C” and, hey, Picture ‘D” is really gorgeous isn’t it? We can, in the present day, get a visual average of what someone is like, even though all of the many pictures of them may also contain false information. But statues are different. Their single view of a person’s life encourages us to learn less, to accept the official version of that person, to see History’s rough edges rounded off. Statues outlast context and when new context is applied to them, we may find we don’t actually like them very much….or that they remind us of something in ourselves that we don’t like, or both.
The National Statuary Hall, seen here, is inside the U.S. Capitol building and contains two figures from each of the fifty states. Google a listing of the statues and ask yourself which ones you personally would nominate for demolition. Maybe they all pass muster throughout the shifting centuries. Maybe some will, or deserve to, fall. But what makes any portrait live or wither is context, and anyone deciding what art is “unacceptable” must also become a diligent student of that context. We constantly create untrustworthy images with our cameras, and we think we know how those faces will hold up before future audiences. But time has a way of making us all look foolish, perhaps rightly so. What’s required in all cases is distance, balance, and humility.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
DURING MY CAREER IN RADIO, I lost count of how many times I heard people react to recordings of their voice with the remark, “that doesn’t even sound like me”. The statement is funny because it’s both true and false. As a series of stored electromagnetic signals that are a scientific record of sound, the tape certainly recreates the original noises we make: and yet our inner version of ourself seems distorted, as if we’re looking in a funhouse mirror. That can’t be us. Fact is, we’re often the world’s worst authority on what we are or are not, something that’s measured by the things we create.
Stay with me.
The current Great Hibernation that we’re all enduring is a great opportunity to clean house, to get to those dreaded “someday” lists that somehow always involve getting rid of things, of paring down. For photographers, this can involve finally curating old online images (not originals), a process which, like hearing our recorded voices, introduces us to versions of ourselves that we no longer recognize. Put enough distance between yourself and a picture you made a while ago and you can actually forget what it was about the thing that seemed a good idea at the time. And when you become estranged from an idea, it’s tough to love it enough to keep it around. Delete.
Of course, there are the other cases, in which you can clearly recall what you were after, and how, sadly, the result differs greatly from your “vision”. I don’t know which is worse, not recognizing your original intention or recognizing it all too well and wanting to distance yourself from it. Delete.
Some images are orphans. You posted them, you tagged them, you continued to love them, but no one else wanted to come to the party. “They” didn’t get it because….why? A million reasons. Whatever the missed connection was due to, these fatherless kiddos aren’t your best work. Delete.
There are also special circles of my own private hell for “lipstick on a pig” pictures. You know the ones. They’re inadequate or ill-conceived, but you are convinced that by torturing them into new versions of themselves with apps or software (see above, gulp), you can somehow make up for the fact that you blew the master image. That’s not just putting lipstick on a pig, that’s telling yourself that the pig is actually Sophia Loren. Delete.
There is actually an upside to this process. With all the chaff you will also review all the wheat, occasionally astonishing yourself at how lucky/persistent/prescient you were. This is truly an investment in hope, since, it stands to reason, if you could mine gold once, you might, just might be able to do it again. Taken in full, a healthy and brutal review of past sights and other blights is as valuable as going out today to shoot all new stuff. More valuable, actually, because everything you shoot today is a by-product of all the keepers and weepers that went before. Understanding who you were informs who you will be. And while it’s humbling to find that you’re not always perfect, it’s a genuine comfort to know that sometimes you ring the bell.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I’M A FEW WEEKS LATE in observing what has become a nearly annual habit in the pages of The Normal Eye since its launch some nine years ago. Like all of us (and certainly most photographers), I get swept up in what I think is important in the moment, and I can, at times, forget my manners. I’ve slung a lot of words in your direction over the better part of a decade, but only two of them really matter.
Thanks for subscribing. For reading. For sticking around. For caring enough to take issue with ideas, and to occasionally add your support for them. Thanks for helping me remember that, although technical knowledge is always a key part of photography, the real things that animate it as an art are motivations. Dreams. Attempts to make a visual record of our desires and dreads. To say that photography is about a certain camera or lens or setting is to say that painting is about the brushes, and we have always tried to keep our main mission in focus: to share, yes, what tools can help us, but, most importantly, what it feels like to face creative decisions and do your best to realize those decisions in a remarkably flexible medium, possibly the greatest storytelling vehicle man has ever known.
These pages pose plenty of questions, but I have tried not to insist that my personal answers to those questions are recommendations for all. I’m not Dear Abby. I have no set solutions to challenges that register differently with every eye and every camera. At most, what I write here is in the way of a field diary: I was presented with this and I decided to try….that. What you read here is an active, developing story of what I encounter and learn on my journey. You may find some common notes between my melody and yours, and you just as easily might dismiss that melody as noise. And that’s just fine.
While rummaging through a lot of old files in recent days (we all have extra time on our hands these days) I’m struck with how many images I’ve made of the insides of museums. Not to document the specific exhibitions of any particular place, but to show the feeling that I get inside such spaces. The potential for amazement. The fact that, any second now, something transformative could swing out of the darkness into clear view..challenging me to see differently. In that way, all of life serves as a museum, a collection of artifacts that can appear, depending on our perception, either as elegant clutter or inspiration. I know what choice I’ve made, and it’s the same choice made by all of you, every time you seek other sources of joy, other teachers, other talents. Thanks for making The Normal Eye one of the stops on your journey, and thanks for the energy you have invested in helping me make it better.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
OBVIOUSLY, OUR CURRENT DILEMMA ISN’T THE FIRST TIME PHOTOGRAPHERS ACROSS THE WORLD have been fixated on walls. Wars, natural disasters, imprisonment, confinement of any kind present unique challenges of access and opportunity for shooters. Isolation is often the barrier between story and storyteller. If only we could see around, past, under, we could complete our narrative. But the Great Hibernation we are all undergoing at present is a little different. Separating inside from outside is one thing. Separating each of us from all of the rest of us is another kind of isolation altogether.
Our imaginations can fire fantasies about things we can, for the moment, not depict directly. When memory and speculation fail, those of us who are physically hemmed in head for the windows, those finite little tele-screens that open onto at least a portion of the greater world. What are the neighbors up to? Are the blossoms out? Is the mailman coming today? Does the world look, in any way, normal?
And then there are those windows that open to an airshaft, a blank wall, or alleys ( which are, themselves, windows of another kind). In my house, I have one such “dead” window, which, normally, is only used as a light filter, as it’s framed in thick louvers designed to let in illumination even as it keeps the midday Arizona heat out. The louvers only come wide open when additional light is needed for a room that acts as a default natural-light studio of sorts. Thus, most of the time, the fact that it delivers a particularly worthless view is simply forgotten.
But a few days ago, I wanted to see that view, to feel it as a metaphor or a link to everyone else for whom being able to see out their windows is, in some ways, worse than confinement. A tease. Information without value. Here in the southwest, many residential homes deliberately hide their side and back yards from view with masonry barriers. We are so wall-oriented that the things really become invisible. We learn not only not to care about what they conceal but about them as concealers. But that’s the way our world typically works.
Somehow, then, maybe out of an attempt at solidarity with all the other stranded wall-gazers in this Weird New World, I wanted to make a picture of what it feels like to look out upon nothing, to have the world walled in, and then walled in beyond that. The fisheye lens allowed me to frame the louvers and the sill in the same image in a way that made the opening narrow even as it was strangely wide. Barriers and photographers make lousy companions. We always want them all down, even they conspire to keep us ever within. Maybe that’s a kind of definition of art.
And maybe I’ve just been in the house too flaming long.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
REFLECTION TAKES A KIND OF MENTAL TALENT. Others would say that it takes humility. Or wisdom.
But mostly, it takes time.
Looking back is not a speedy process. First, it helps for us to personally advance to the point where certain things are in the past, since the distancing of ourselves from the immediacy of events invites and facilitates our thoughtful analysis of them. Perspective requires distance, a way to separate ourselves from the blindness of our immediate environment. The questions then become obvious: what did all that stuff mean? Which parts of it can I learn from? Does it all deserve to go away?
The process of reflection in photography also waits, if you will, for enough time to pass, allowing the artist to re-evaluate things, to take a second crack at trying to understand them. Once an experience floats far enough away from us, we are free to either appreciate it anew or merely release it as less than essential. The dear departed, once we get far enough away from them, become open to interpretation by many means, the camera among them. Everyday objects can tend to be invisible, because we mainly see only their use. With time, we can often re-visit them, seeing new elements in their design, the context of why they were important in the first place, or other considerations.
Think Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup can.
By forcing a conversation about a seemingly banal object, forcing it into “serious” art galleries as an important thing, Warhol made us look at why we consume things, as well as what we would, going forward, consider “art”. Lately, in the age of the Great Hibernation, many photographers are picking through the accumulated stuff of their immediate environment, looking for something from which to craft images. In so doing, we’ll inevitably stumble across things we have forgotten, or simply don’t consider anymore on an everyday basis. Some of these objects have only recently drifted out of the flood of impressions that make up our daily world, like the cassette seen here. How could anything have been more ubiquitous at the height of its popularity? What could be anymore superfluous than it is now? And yet…
Using the camera and our increasing distance from familiar things can free those things from their popular associations. They can become our soup can, sparking some interesting questions. Why did we use this thing? Why did it not last? And now that it is, truly, just a thing, what can we learn about ourselves by looking at it from a new direction? This is not as ridiculous a rainy-day project as it seems. We still visit places whose famous sites are so over-photographed that we have to labor to say anything new about them, to, in effect, make the Eiffel tower our Eiffel tower. The whole idea of re-visualizing dear, recently departed is really part of the same exercise, done one cassette at a time.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I HAVE ALWAYS ARGUED THAT THE PRINCIPLE AIM OF PHOTOGRAPHY is twofold: firstly, to capture what is splendid in the world, celebrating the order of beauty, the majesty of nature, the grand talents of the enterprising soul: and, secondly, to point unflinchingly to what needs correction, to what challenges and threatens us. You can’t have life without both these drives, and you certainly can’t call photography an art if it doesn’t address them equally.
The world is at war at the moment. Our tragedies and losses in this conflict are not incurred by shells and bombs, but by the most primal forces in the natural world. For those who fall before this horror, the results are as final as if they had occurred during a bombardment or battle. The visual ways in which we measure our fear and dislocation are in some ways similar to those seen in regular wars. They are not symbolized by a single, terrible image, but by a million little pictures of very ordinary things, some of which we must put away for awhile as we arm our hearts for what is to come. In this very real way, every one of us that is armed with a camera becomes, in some sense, a war correspondent.
The image seen here is certainly not sinister in the true sense. It’s hard to summon a negative association with playground equipment. But that’s in peacetime.
During times of turmoil, the normal rhythms of life are not yanked away in one clean rip-of-the-bandaid jerk. Rather, they are eroded. Narrowed. You can only do your favorite thing on certain days, at certain hours, and under certain conditions, for the time being. Updates will be posted…
I sat before this scene for several moments before I could unpack why it upset me so. In personal terms, I had walked through the very same park several days prior. Nothing was different now, except…the tape. The word on the tape. And the implied message: this thing that typically gives you joy is now to be avoided. Normal is suspended.
In the short term, there will be many pictures that will break our hearts far more fundamentally than this one ever can. Images that will test our resolve. Touch off volatile emotions. This photo is nothing by comparison to what’s to come. And yet, it is part of the mosaic we are creating during this Great Hibernation (my gentle name for a horrific reality). Each tile in the mosaic is a story of some way that some part of the larger tragedy effected someone among us. I know that I, myself, will create other pictures that are far more jarring than this one. But, as always, it’s the little things that can have the biggest impact. Because when reality shifts, it happens one routine, or one playground, at a time.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
What moves me about what’s called “technique”…is that it comes from some mysterious deep place. I mean it can have something to do with the paper and the developer and all that stuff, but it comes mostly from some very deep choices somebody has made that take a long time and keep haunting them.” – Diane Arbus
ONE EVERLASTING ARGUMENT ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHY centers on whether there is any such thing as a “pure” picture…..that is, an image which is merely the recording of reality without the slightest hint of intervention by the photographer. I believe that, in making pictures, we convince ourselves that we have only made a “document” of life, that our own thumbs don’t touch the scale in favor of any kind of bias. But I also believe that, no matter what we tell ourselves about the process, it is impossible for us to retreat to the mere act of punching the shutter button, since even that simple motion has some level of choice inherent in it. The objectivity we believe that we practice is largely an illusion: the impact of our photographs is in direct proportion to just how much we do interfere.
So if just punching the button is at one end of the interference spectrum, then self-portraiture, the age’s dominant obsession, is clear over at the other extreme. In trying to take our own picture, we do nothing but interfere. And stage. And shape. And edit. And perform. Most of this very hands-on approach to immortalizing ourselves is a matter of mere human vanity. We want to come off well. Is my hair all right? Do I look pleasant? Does this make me look too fat/serious/lonely/decisive? In the largely theatrical sphere of selfies, the massage is really the medium.
But, just because we’ve tried to frame our truth in the most sympathetic light doesn’t mean our self-portraits are automatically untrustworthy. In some very real way, we are trying to reveal something about ourselves that no one else has seen, or in Arbus’ words, to show “very deep choices” we have made “that take a long time” and keep “haunting” us. One of the most personal things about what I call our current Great Hibernation is the care or worry that’s etched on our faces in our unguarded moments, those minutes when we’re not sending along recipes and cheery memes on Facebook, or taking online classes, or catching up on our reading. There are real photographs to be made of the anguish and uncertainty we’re all experiencing, even if they can’t be taken in real time. The self-portrait you see here admittedly involves some acting, as it’s a purposeful re-creation of emotions once truly experienced in full, albeit in isolation. As a consequence, I stipulate that the result is imperfect, even though it may still be “true”. My thought process actually proceeds from an experiment in which, after making this picture, I’d show it to others and ask, “does this look like what you’re feeling right now?” In turn, the responses I got made me wonder if I should ever confess that I was the photographer as well as the subject, since I was afraid that such as admission would, for some, render the picture void, since, after all, aren’t we the worst judge of how we look, or should look, in an image?
But what if we’re not? What if our own knowledge of ourselves is so unique that we are, indeed, qualified to say to the world, I know this isn’t a true “candid”, but so what? Yes, it’s true that, in this photo, I wasn’t “caught unawares”. What you see here is a re-creation of how I felt, and will again feel. Still, who is around in my otherwise quiet house to tell this tale more effectively? Am I disqualified because I am trying to make art out of my own life? Diane Arbus also said that a photograph is a secret about a secret. Perhaps the most important pictures we can make, to plumb our own secrets, is to try to map our anxieties…in the moment, if we can, but as faithfully as we can after the fact, even when they’re re-constructed from memory.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN TIMES LIKE THESE, OUR EYES HUNGRILY SEEK OUT signs of continuity, proof that, even as many things pass away, other things, essential things, will go on. This desire to see a way for part of today to remain, as a part of tomorrow, is strong in days of crises, and it finds its way into the viewfinders of our cameras. We know, logically, at least, that a bit of the world is always ending. But we emotionally, we long to be assured that something important will remain. And we make pictures accordingly.
Like many, I have recently limited my time “out” to walks in wide open spaces. Six feet of separation and all that. The thing that connects me anew to those that I encounter is my camera, and so I have been shooting almost exclusively with what the commercial market calls a “super zoom”, the perfect tool for people who want to feel close but dare not actually get close. I don’t think of myself as deliberately spying or peeping on people, and much of what I see I reject as being a bit too intimate for sharing. But the general tableaux of everyday humanity comes up again and again, in ways which suggest effective images that do not betray my subject’s privacy, yet convey things that we are all feeling. It’s a tightrope walk, but with care, that very important personal distance can be respected.
In the image you see here, there’s nothing more universal than a mother and daughter walking together, and yet its value in memory, to me, is very specific. I clearly recall the sensation of walking with my father, all five feet nine of him, as a tiny boy, and seeing him as a giant….a mountain of reassuring protection. I stood on his shoulders: I ran between his legs: He swung me like a sling: His arms bore me up and gave me the sensation of flying like Superman. Most important was the pure transmission of happy energy from him to me, his life conducting itself into mine. We were a big candid photo family, and so I have lots of archival data on every part of my childhood, chronicles of years when my young parents grew up side by side with my sister and me and we were absorbed into the best part of them. My parents are 91 and 88 this year, and the current situation forbids my being in even the same half-continent as they, but I carry with me all my Walks With Giants, all the times I was the laughing girl in this image. I hope that she and her mother would not begrudge me the privilege of borrowing their energy and trapping a bit of it inside my box. It’s a life force that, in a larger sense, belongs to us all.
Because some things must go on.
And they will.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MOST OF THE FORMAL TRAINING IN PHOTOGRAPHIC PORTRAITURE rightly emphasizes the eyes, those so-called “windows of the soul”, and it’s hard to argue with their weight as indicators of the inner mind. But, in reality, every facial feature can be eloquent in conveying that which comprises the individual: love, fear, hate, happiness…whatever mix of outward cues that connote personality in a photograph. And it’s also true that, generally speaking, one’s face is a more reliable identifier of traits than, say, an arm or an ankle. However, portraits are loaded with information that occurs from the neck down as well, and a good deal of it can be mined for solid indicators of just who it is we’re looking at. And while we concede that most of us would never deliberately cut the top off a subject in everyday practice, (as seen here) doing so, at least for this exercise, illustrates just how much data can be left to work with when we, in a sense, lose our head.
Clothing, regalia, body language, even something as basic as color…all these come ripe with codes about the life of the individual under consideration, and can be as valuable in portraiture as the face itself. Now, the idea of recommending that you re-examine your favorite portraits without considering their facial information is not to convince you to choose someone’s suit or hand over their face, but to increase our consciousness of what besides the face can amplify and deepen our sense of the people we photograph. I have seen many images where the depth of field was so narrow that, from the eyes outward, most of the face is largely softened, with everything else outside that narrow radius so blurred as to yield virtually no information. And, yes, that approach works wonderfully in many instances. Still, I am the very last person to propose any ironclad rule that always works or never works, since I believe that absolutes have no place in art. Every case must be considered separately.
So long as people are much more than merely their faces, I believe that everyone who works in portraiture should cultivate the habit of looking at every subject as a unique mix of elements, resulting in a range of pictures where sometimes the face is everything, or is sometimes just a thing among others, and occasionally is of no importance at all. The eyes may be a vary reliable window to the soul, but there are always other kinds of eyes, other kinds of windows.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
STREET PHOTOGRAPHY IS, AT BEST, a frustratingly imprecise method of, well, eavesdropping. In such unplanned documentary images, the photographer is cast as a kind of sneak-thief, bent upon prying into the unguarded moments of an unsuspecting quarry. But unlike the practice of listening at the keyhole, of course, unposed pix provide no sound, no dialogue to accompany the streetie’s stolen views, and so the resulting pictures often conceal as much as they reveal about What Is Going On Here. We see, but we don’t discern. At least, not solely on what is shown.
Of course, that is the delicious element of the process of street. We supply the missing pieces of the puzzle, assigning our own “meaning” to what we think we have seen. Line up a handful of viewers to interpret a photographed interaction between people and note the incredible variety of “answers” or “solutions” to the image. Part of the allure of photography is that we think as much about what a photo doesn’t show as what it does. In some ways, it’s like the relationship moviegoers had with silent film. Certainly the title cards provided the essential story points or pivotal bits of dialogue, but we also had our minds to conjure what those longing glances, those missing voices, those unseen details were really all about. And so, even in an art form in which we prize the miracle of preserving moments unmoored from time, we agree, along with our audiences, that these moments are incomplete, that, in fact, the finishing of them, in our eyes, is part of the wonder, part of the art.
And so perhaps the best street photographs are special not so much for what they show, but for how successfully they spark that urge within us to know more. Our speculations and guesses, are, in the absence of important information, as valid or “true” as anyone else’s take on the thing. That again demonstrates that photography is a creative process for both taker and viewer. It’s a cooperative enterprise, a divine guessing game with no final resolution: a circle.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I MAY NOT BE PHOTOGRAPHER ENOUGH TO FOOL THE HUMAN EYE, but on a good day, I can apparently con Photos for Mac. I know this because I caught the program using its own “logic” to arrange images into categories for which, truly, they don’t qualify. One such category is “panoramas”, a folder which Photos has chocked with pictures that were not made either with a true panoramic camera or a stitch-up phone app, but merely by cropping larger shots. The thing is, such clipped art work as panoramas because of what they ask of the viewer’s eye.
Most of my landscapes, in town or out in the country, are shot with a 24mm f/2.8 wide-angle, which is my go-to for urban work. It adds little in the way of barrel distortion if you aim it right, and allows for very inclusive framing when you’re in cramped quarters (lower Manhattan, I’m talking to you). It’s also as sharp as a diamond, and so, at its sweet spot of efficiency (around f/5.6) it’s a snap to focus manually. It’s a sophisticated lens that performs almost as easily as a point-and-shoot, and even though landscapes shot with it will result in a lot of excess detail, this one lens will do nearly 100% of what I need on an average day. And since there’ll often be way too much info in the landscapes, a-cropping I will go.
Panos are often tiresome because there simply aren’t a lot of linear subjects that are uniformly fascinating from left-to-right. I mean, if you’re bent on having all of General Grant’s 103rd regiment muster up in front of you, or if you’re trying to drink in all the delicious detail along the Cote D’Azur, it can be worth the extra effort. But this is me confessing that most of the shots that my Mac calls “panos” depict decisions made after the shutter snap, and only then because most of the useful visual info in the shot turned out to be linear in nature. I don’t intentionally head out of a morning to “do a pano”, and, in making landscape shots with other objectives in mind, I often don’t see, in the moment, the super-wide image lurking within the greater one. But on days when the camera gods are in a good mood, you find that, even in paring away half of your original, you’ve actually rescued something workable inside your master frame.
In the two examples seen here, the contrast is fairly obvious. The human activity, the line of the boats and, beyond, the skyline of the Brooklyn shore seem to be primarily inviting the eye into a left-to-right reading of the image, whereas crowding the frame with extraneous structures, more boardwalk lumber, or extra sky really saps the picture of any impact it might potentially have, and so, out come the scissors. I also believe that giving the eye more stuff to process means it will do some of it badly. Just as a portrait is usually made more effective by framing its subject mid-waist to head only, so do landscapes often benefit from cutting off their top and bottom thirds, depending on the image. I’m not one of those faux purists who believe you’ve “cheated” by cropping a picture after it’s made. I believe that resizing the frame is part of the making, albeit a part that takes place after the click.
So, yes, my trusty wide-angle is, in most cases, also my trusty makeshift pano lens. I’ve done the same thing with fisheyes, cropping them to highlight the super-wide center of a shot to the exclusion of the extreme bends at the edges. In many such cases, I am trending toward carrying less and less glass with me and getting more and more flexibility out of what I do take along, a development applauded by my aging neck and shoulders. It may be true that you need to suffer to be beautiful, but in the name of a healthy spine, I’m going to keep testing that theory.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PUBLIC STRUCTURES CAN BECOME THE MOST OVER-PHOTOGRAPHED objects on the planet, especially if they strike people as personally symbolic. As visual icons of status, history, empire, and other human yearnings, our buildings and gathering places can flood the world market with images, as everyone does their “take” on things that have already been explored beyond human imagination. Eventually, saying something new about these places can be a challenge, since all the obvious renditions of it have themselves become iconic. That is to say, the predominant way most people have photographed a thing becomes, itself, the “official” way of looking at it.
This problem exists less with new or emerging destinations, places that are not as yet pre-imagined into “correct” photographic interpretations. Such sites are, if you will, fresh out of the oven. Be one of the first hundred million or so to “discover” a special place, and you may just have a chance of looking at it in an original way, before the prevailing version becomes carved in stone. Take two iconic sectors of Manhattan as an example. One has to really, really strain to make a new image of the Empire State Building, and so many of us just shoot our copy of the expected view. Head down to Ground Zero, however, and it seems much easier to do a lot more, imagination-wise, with something like the Oculus, the space-erific replacement for the PATH terminal that was destroyed on 9/11. Its contours still surprise. Its overall design intention is still a matter of personal conjecture. It has not yet become either universally beloved or universally despised.
Art thrives in areas where, conceptually, we haven’t truly made up our minds…where the jury’s still out. Photographing something in an influential vacuum….that is, uninfluenced by all the others who have discovered the subject before you…is difficult. Both the glorious and the notorious attract shooters like a summer porch light does moths, and soon, what I call the “postcard average” version of a thing emerges, and is cemented into place. At that point the photographer who wants to mine something new out of the subject has to be prepared to dig deep, to undercut expectations. But when we measure the impact of a thing with our own eyes, rather than just recording our agreement with the popular view, then the mob stops being in charge inside our heads. Then we can actually see.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS PHOTOGRAPHERS, WE ALL HAVE THEM, whether we parade them defiantly or sequester them in locked drawers. “They” are our Orphan Images, the photos that never quite made it to the finals. Our strange little camera creatures, the ones that fall outside every arbitrary category of success. Our guilty pleasures. Or, in most cases, concepts that Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time.
We’ve written about these underloved ones before here in The Normal Eye, these pictures that may not even be technical failures but which somehow qualify as….odd. So. Very. Odd. And still I come back to the subject because there is something addictive about even our mistakes. Maybe especially our mistakes.
Many of them frustrate us. The compositions that didn’t quite sell our idea. The light that failed. The idea we didn’t take quite far enough. Did I mention bad light?
Strangely, we harbor a special warmth toward our orphans. We may even convince ourselves that they really are “great”. Or that they’re misunderstood, which means that they somehow failed to make themselves understood. Sometimes an idea that comes close, but still comes up short, inspires a bittersweet affection in us. They are the kids that got cut from Little League at the last second. We, or the pictures, tried so very hard. To be in the presence of greatness is breathtaking, while being in the presence of almost-greatness is often heartbreaking.
After you’ve been shooting for a while, you seldom take any picture without some kind of basic intention. And that means that the resulting image can’t really stand alone anymore. It’s always linked, and contrasted, with the thing we wish we had done. If we missed by a mile, we can accept that perfection is a journey and be a bit philosophical about the whole thing. Missing by inches…well, that’s another thing entirely.
I don’t know why I like this picture. I mean, I understand completely the mix of components I was going for. And yet, I can’t defend it vigorously to anyone else. I know it’s…off. But not far enough off to land in the junk bin. Just off enough to drive me a little bit crazy.
Ella Fitzgerald once said that the only thing that’s better than singing is more singing. And I guess I feel the same about making pictures. Whatever’s wrong with your photos can, or might, be cured by your very next one. Or not. That’s the tantalizing, and maddening part of the photographic learning curve. It’s complicated further by the fact that you’re not merely trying to master your gear, but yourself. Seeing how very close you came to being the best you is tough. But most failures are not outright flops but qualified successes, and that little tweak in how we perceive our imperfect work is the only thing that also makes the whole deal worthwhile.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE’VE ALL SEEN THEM: signs, designed for a set purpose, repurposed by accident or intention into very different messages. They are everywhere: the “deer crossing” warning that is riddled with shotgun holes: the speed limit posting that gets spray-painted a few mph higher than what the law allows: the red diamond where the word “racism” is added to the word “stop”. For photographers, observing the environment is more than adding our own interpretation: it’s also noticing the way messages are modified by others, and chronicling the effect of it all.
Humans are highly adaptive, and if a sign isn’t working for them, they’ll set about to make it right, or at least put it in sync with their view of the world. But not all these revisions are vandalistic in nature. Certainly signs are morphed as pure commentary, but they are also messages of urgency, protests against official injustice, cries for help. In all cases, to show them in photographs is to acknowledge the passions behind the revisions.
And then there are the signs that nature itself takes a hand in reshaping. Wear and tear can render warnings and advisories ironic, even useless. Is a stencil symbolizing a handicapped parking space subject to reinterpretation, once it’s been weathered into abstraction, as seen here? If a safety zone sign is smashed by one careless car too many, are we seeing a good argument for further civic action? Street photography is partly about people and partly about how people fit (or don’t fit) into the infrastructures of their lives. Sometimes, of course, we can try a little too hard to make sense of it all. I recall, decades ago, during the making of one of my many ill-advised student films, falling in love with a particular EXIT sign and deciding that I should shoot enough movie film to edit a shot of it into multiple mileposts of my magnum opus. Sadly, the movie in question didn’t have much to conceptually hold it together beyond the occasional popping-up of the word EXIT between sequences. Truly, if I were hooked up to a polygraph I could prove that I remember nothing else about the project. However, I can still see that sign in my dreams/nightmares. Sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn’t.
All of which is to merely say that no sign registered by our cameras is ever just about what it “says”. It’s always evaluated within the context of what we want to say….or want to avoid saying. That is, we can never just take signs at their word. In the right hands, they have so much to say beyond that.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY’S FIRST HALF-CENTURY OR SO can be seen as a road race with the world of painting, with both runners trying to outpace each other in “realistically” depicting the world. The camera, being an actual recording machine, was first reviled, later praised as a more reliable chronicler of the actual world. Painters, in reaction, quit the reality playing field, inventing new, more abstract forms of expression like Impressionism, and left the documentary work to photogs. Or so everyone assumed.
After 1900, photographers, too embraced the idea that mere “reality” was overrated and developed their own very individualistic ways of making images, introducing the first manipulations of film, light, lenses, printing techniques and composition. Freed from the stricture of merely capturing a scene, shooters began to propose alternative visions, to interpret the world in very subjective ways. Today, one’s photographs can be as tightly naturalistic or as loosely abstract as one pleases, with some of the most impactful pictures being the ones that seem to be about nothing in particular. These “absolute” compositions, basic arrangements of color and light, may not be storytelling images in the same way that a war photo or a news snap are. They not only don’t provide explanations, they don’t even require them. The terms of engagement for such photographs are stark and simple: they’re pictures because we say they’re pictures, and they either grab you or they don’t.
My own training in photography manifested itself as a need to exercise control, to execute well and follow the rules of technique faithfully. However, my idea of getting a picture “right”, which might easily have stopped at just technical precision, has, thankfully, continued to crawl forward toward the kinds of absolutes I described before. Pictures that just are, such as the one shown here, pose a problem for me, since I have to leave the safety of things I know that “work”, entering a realm where I’m not sure where the paths are. I truly love what happens when I relax my grip on the old reliable truths and let things just happen, but it’s also a bit like walking in space: my tether could break, and I could be cast adrift.
The first time I heard someone, in speaking of one of my photographs, ask, “what’s that supposed to be?” I was stung, nervous. The question is, of course, ridiculous, as if there were only one way to represent the world, with every other way somehow counted as wrong. But the camera is not (and never was), a mere measuring and recording instrument. Over the centuries, it has been whatever we have asked of it, a seismograph of our own undulating curiosity. We learn to see by learning its operations. We learn to listen by shutting out every other sound except our own clear voice.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS PHOTOGRAPHERS, WE PROVIDE THE PROGRAM WHICH CAMERAS ARE INSTRUCTED TO PERFORM. The actual box itself, like many other tools, is really a dumb thing, fueled not by its own ideas but instructed to carry out the whims of its owner. The camera thus does not really “see”, but merely follows the direction of those who can.
If they can.
The frustrating part of photography’s learning curve is that, over time, we all come to think of our most enlightened ideas as, well, primitive. The things we regard as obvious in our present incarnation as picture-makers were once invisible to us. And it follows that our present blind spots may, in a future version of ourselves, be the source of our greatest accuity. We are thus learning photography on several planes. There is the merely technical level, in which the mastery of aperture and focus is the primary mission. Then there is learning to see, as we begin to recognize patterns, themes or compositions. Finally there is the ability to evaluate what we see, to place different emphases on things depending on how we ourselves have evolved. This transference can take a pictorial element from the status of an object to that of a subject. We notice a thing differently and thus we photograph it differently.
I find myself in the process of such a shift at the time of this writing, mostly because I have recently made new friends within the birdwatching community, mostly due to my wife’s passion for the hobby. Now, of course, I have taken my share of bird photos over a lifetime, but most of them could be classified as opportunistic accidents (one landed next to where I was sitting) or as props within a composition, something to add scale, balance or flavor to, let’s say a landscape. That is to say that birds, for me, have been objects in my pictures, not, for the most part, subjects. Lately, however, I can see a subtle shift in my own prioritization of them.
Part of my pedestrian attitude toward them is borne of my own technical limits, as I have never owned the kind of superzooms that are required to make a detailed study of them. If I can’t afford to bring them into close view and sharp detail, it’s just easier to represent them as dots, flecks or shadows, as you see in the image at left. This, in turn, connects to my admittedly jaundiced view of telephoto images in general, since I think the gear required to capture them invites as many problems as it solves. I prefer prime lenses for their simplicity, clarity, efficiency of light use and, let’s face it, affordability. I realize now that all those biases are under review: I am, for better or worse, revising how I see the natural world, or, more specifically, the living things within it. Much of this is thanks to Marian, who sees the earth as a kind of game preserve with we bipeds charged with its responsible curation. The influence of her good example has been amplified further by my rage against the corporate titans who would lay waste to the last unicorn if it lined their pockets, and the fact that, at this juncture, their side seems to have the upper hand.
And so as both a photographer and a person, I can’t really relegate birds, or bison, or duck-billed platypuses to the background of my work any more. I may never become a great nature photographer, but that’s not the point. Fact is, the journey involved in sharpening our eye is always a staircase. Each step is important, but the upward journey itself is the main thing. Any photographer lucky enough to have his/her seeing powers challenged, even changed, is blessed indeed.
I know this is true. A little bird told me.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
JUST AS THE TAKING OF A PHOTOGRAPH IS ACCOMPLISHED IN AN INSTANT, so too is the messaging that the resulting image conveys to the viewer. The impact of a picture is immediate, established within nanoseconds of the eye’s initial contact with it. Additional viewing and pondering may, certainly, reveal deeper truths about a photograph, but I firmly believe that the main love it /don’t get it choice about a photo is made by the brain at first glance.
That said, information must be arranged in such a way as to expedite this choice. That’s the art of composition. What stays in, what is excluded, where the frame hits, and what its limits imply. The nature of the information is determined by the impact of light, which shapes and defines. That is in turn aided by texture, which adds dimension and context in how new or old, rough, smooth, substantial or ethereal things appear in the image. And finally, mood and aesthetic are established in the range of color or tonal data.
All of these elements are created by a series of decisions on whether “to do” or “not do”. Which is to say that all photographs have an assembly process. Steps. Priorities. More of this, less of that. The fact that the best photographers learn how to navigate all these decisions instantaneously is really a kind of miracle. Take the truly fundamental choice of color, for example. Not only do a picture’s hues have to be conceived in the mind before they’re attempted in the camera: they must be refined enough for the shooter to choose how all the shaping elements described above work in conjunction with each other. Think of the graphic equalizers on our old stereos, each ‘band” or part of the hearable spectrum trimmed or maximized to get a “mix” most pleasing to the ear. In visual terms, color is a key choice because it is an element that can shape so many other elements in turn. In the above image, color can resonate with memory and emotion. It can render what we term “warmth”. It also aids in the perception of depth. Consider as well that color has only become the default option for our photography in about the last sixty years. Before that, due to technical challenges for film emulsions and printing processes, it was a luxury item, even a novelty for many.
“Going back” to monochrome, the original default option for all photography, means actively recognizing what kind of information is lost and what kind of impact is gained by eschewing color. Is the image strengthened or weakened with its removal? Is converting a color shot to b/w as an afterthought (as I’ve done here) less effective than intentionally shooting the original in mono? Are the remaining tones strong enough to convey your message? Is one tonal palette more reportorial or “authentic” than the other? And, above all, what if the choice you’ve made (color or no color) isn’t the choice your viewer makes (in the case of this pair, for example, my wife prefers the color version, although “they’re both nice”)? Photography is about making decisions and learning to live with them. Or just canning the entire thing and trying again.
“We must remember that a photograph can hold just as much as we put into it” Ansel Adams once wrote, “and no one has ever approached the full possibilities of the medium”. Which is a lot like God saying, “hey, don’t get hung up on making just one kind of tree”. The possibilities in making pictures are indeed endless, but each are rooted in our very purposeful choices.