By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE RIGHTLY ACCUSED, from time to time, of trying too hard to capture every key moment of life. Part of that drive can certainly be written off to the pursuit of any obsessive-compulsive hobby, from stamp collecting to Elvis paraphernalia. But some of it is driven by the haunted regrets that involve the pictures that we didn’t, and now never can, take.
I got a sad reminder of that this week. Because a friend of mine died. And somehow, I, the perpetual pest with a camera (in the estimation of my entire social circle, and beyond) never managed, in the seven years of that friendship, to take his picture even once. The hollow feeling that has accompanied that realization over the past few days is twice as painful, since this is not the first time this has happened. No, I can actually count a small crowd of people who have moved into important rooms in the house of my life, then packed and left without my having so much as a snapshot to remember them by. What does this say about me, and how I see my relationships with people?
Since my children have grown to adults and launched their own lives, I have seldom had subjects that have justified the feverish shower of photos that once defined my active parenting years. There are grandchildren now, but, compared to the torrent of images taken of them (and shared with me) by other family members, I see my own yield of personally shot pictures as a paltry pile. Now ask me how many images I’ve made of skyscrapers. Ouch.
And now another friend is gone, destined to live only in my memory, the way almost everyone was remembered by almost everybody before the invention of the camera. Surely my reminiscences of the most important people in my life are stronger, more personal, than any photograph I might create of any one of them, right? Or would a picture be the best tribute to those no longer here, a true measure, at least in light and dimensions, of what they were actually like? Or, further, do I just believe that even my best work might fall short of their best essence, and simply dodge the daunting task of documenting them in a physical way?
Friendships, at least the good ones, are like our notion of our very own lives, in that they seem to be destined to go on forever. Until they don’t. At this point in the game, I’m fast approaching a world populated largely by ghosts of adventures long past. A mere two-dimensional record of those who are gone is probably a sorry substitute for the detail of memory, except, of course, that memory itself will eventually corrode and go brown around the edges. Maybe the real reason to make a photograph of someone is the same reason a jazz musician creates an improvisation, in the moment, on a familiar tune. We are celebrating the now, interpreting this person’s impact on us right now. It’s be funny to learn that images are not so much about preserving people forever as they are emotional reactions to where they are for you while they are still here. Maybe our pictures don’t preserve anything about those people except how much we loved them. That’s not enough to show from the so many lives in our life. But it’s something.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PATTERNS ARE KIND OF A PHOTOGRAPHIC ABSOLUTE, in that they require no context for comprehension in an image. We needn’t explain such arrangements of negative and positive space, such as the latticework of a single snowflake: their mere existence is story enough. We find endless fascination in the spirals within the heart of a flower, the alternating light and shadow inside a stairwell. Of course, we can certainly take the time to remark further about them, but the best photographs of patterns go way beyond our ability to justify them with mere words. In a visual medium, they are their own best testimony.
Other patterns resist interpretation for the reason that they are clearly of another time, so far removed from our own present-day experience as to be meaningless to us beyond their shape and contours. We can view mosaics from a vanished culture, but are prevented from deciphering their symbols: we find a flute from centuries past but can’t read the notated music that was intended to be played on it. In more recent terms, the technology that remade the planet during the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century has left behind a rusting legacy of devices which speak very little as to their original functions. Masses of gears, wheels and belts which once were the stuff of everyday existence now need captions to even be comprehended by our eyes. Thus, as visual subjects, their patterns are so obsolete as to be abstract, presenting merely a mixture of textures and tones to our contemporary cameras.
The world is moving so quickly that even the wildly speculative “future” gizmos seen at the World’s Fairs of the 1960’s already need auxiliary context to be fully appreciated. In one respect, as purely visual artists, we are actually freed by this phenomenon. When a thing becomes unanchored from its original purpose, the photographer can assign any purpose to it that he pleases. The object is nothing, and so, paradoxically, it can be everything. Consider the mass of machinery in the above shot. Were I not to tell you its original use, would you recognize it as part of the machinery to be found in a flour milling facility from the 1800’s? Does knowing or not knowing that fact detract from its impact as an image? Are you all right with patterns that are truly absolute, scenes that are merely themselves, and nothing more?
You are always in charge of what you want your pictures to say. You can record events and people at face value, or you can imbue them with additional meaning. Or no meaning whatsoever. The camera is thus just a servo-mechanism. It’s not in charge of saying what the world is. That power, that responsibility, has always been yours and yours alone.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR NARRATIVE PHOTOGRAPHY, THE MOST COMPLETE CONTROL IN AN IMAGE can never consist merely in the mastery of technical factors like aperture or exposure. Depending on what kind of storytelling your pictures are about, those elements are certainly important, but, to my mind, Job One is always about control of the frame. The selection of what’s in or out of that space is the first step toward setting terms of engagement for a given picture. It is your audience’s cue sheet for what’s important to look at, the main argument for your message. Own the frame and you own the viewer’s eye, as well as whether it focuses precisely or meanders all over.
The word “frame” is, itself, a little vague in this context. Photographs are not only framed by the physical confines of the viewing area, say an 8 x 10 print. There are many ways to subdivide the space within the image to create frames within frames. Frames can be any line or demarcation in the photograph which isolate or amplify information. Framing does what you might do if you were verbally narrating or captioning your message, only it acts in a purely visual manner. Of course the physical limits of your final photo create mystery or mood merely by themselves, as the eye will naturally ask what is happening beyond the limits of the physical confines of the picture. But even inside the “hard” edges that are printed or projected, data can be revealed or concealed by what surrounds or delineates it.
Framing is a little like capitalizing a letter at the head of a new sentence. As seen in the above picture, with some help from either selective focus or silhouetting, it can also create a perceptible distance between foreground and background, a kind of faux 3d that imitates the way actual stereo photographers are taught to compose to maximize the effect in a flat medium. In this specific case, the mother and son are separated by interior framing from the greater part of the composition, held in place between the tree at right at the stone wall beneath them. This acts as a dividing line between light and dark, major information and minor decor. Framing is a way of dividing your image into active and passive information, or prioritizing its components. What data gets left out, then, is as important as what gets left in, since both decisions can spark speculation in the viewer. A frame is like a proscenium where the audience both concentrates on what’s in front of the curtain and speculates about what’s behind it. The frame is the terms of engagement for a photograph. The clearer those terms, the more immediate your picture’s impact.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE FIRST TIME I SAW THE STATUE, situated at the side of a newly opened bookstore, I thought it looked a bit…lonely, rather like the first chair you move into an otherwise empty apartment. The sheer amount of sidewalk and parking lot surrounding the bronze figure of Mahatma Gandhi made it look like someone had delivered it to the wrong place, and was perhaps returning at some future time to see it on to its rightful owner. And while I certainly have reverence for the eminent leader as, well, an eminent leader, I would have thought a more predictable bust of Poe or effigy of Twain might have made a better outside advertisement for the tomes within.
Then, a year later, I got a second chance to see the possibilities.
In the intervening period, and as they are wont to do, a very lush desert bird of paradise bush had sprung up, flowering fully by the end of this summer, nearly obscuring the Mahatma and placing him in a very different kind of visual space. Suddenly I visualized a design, or at least a design idea, for an image. In traditional Indian art, the same flame-tip orange found in the shrub’s flowers are a very dominant color, symbolizing sun, flames, birds, and the raiment of various gods. The sea of blossoms now fronting the statue seemed less to me like plants and more to me like banks of fire, or oceanic waves, or those brilliantly colored clouds of dye dust billowing up during celebrations and rituals all across India. I began to imagine Gandhi as a mystical figure emerging from those clouds, as if released from the bonds of time, or maybe even as Shiva himself summoned him forth. The problem with this whole conception now became how to render something fanciful with a machine (the camera) whose default is merely to document.
But, of course, that was the fun of it…
I had one very fortunate ally in the fading, pre-sunset light, which amped up the orange in the blossoms and also bounced that same color off the shiner portions of the statue’s bronze. I also figured that the flowers on the bird of paradise might be more suggestive of movement if they weren’t rendered in absolutely sharp focus, so I opened my lens all the way to f/2, shrinking my depth of field to almost nothing. I then concentrated any sharpness to be had on the statue’s head alone, isolating it in a kind of focal sandwich with the softened foreground and background as the “bread”, if you will. The slight glowing affect achieved when shooting wide open on this particular lens (A Soviet-era Helios 44M) also helped the dreamlike quality suggested by what I saw in my mind. The result is not a technically perfect realization of all this, but it at least records the rudiments of my idea, much like a sketchbook “rough”, a field test of the idea that I may refine later.
The only really important thing here was in reminding myself that the addition of a single new element in our view of the familiar can substantially expand one’s options in photography. The newly added straw may not break the camel’s back, but someone may be inspired to remark, “oh, you stuck a straw on his back. That’s just what was needed….”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS THE CAMERA IS A KIND OF REPORTER, it is called upon to capture or convey every aspect of the human experience. In a strict journalistic context, this can mostly consist of emotional extremes…..that is, joy, devastation, triumph, disaster, life, death. Feelings that laugh (or scream) out loud sell newspapers and pump ratings. But photographers are also called upon to show that, for one reason or another, we humans spend a lot of time….waiting.
You can make your own list of all the things we actually wait upon: trains, planes, the next opportunity, the last piece of cake, Christmas, true love. To be human is to abide, to patiently hang until the next item on life’s menu comes along. Sometimes there is nothing visually special in all that waiting. On the other hand, sometimes we can use our cameras to depict our restlessness, our expectation. Certainly time can slow to a crawl, and, with it, the heartbeat of our existence. But occasionally, all that “nothing looks”, at least in a photograph, like something.
We learn to document and measure emptiness. Cities before they fully wake. Courtrooms that have just emptied out. The first seepage of night into the dying day. Places that should be bustling, but aren’t. Towns on the edge of the end. People who’ve been stood up, left out, or merely missed their connection. But, there’s no guarantee that when “nothing” happens, a picture with “something” results. Sometimes, nothing is just…nothing.
But then again….
The hotel lobby seen here has graced its small town for over a hundred years. And it stands to reason that, if the owners were making a promotional video of that century, the end product would feature plenty of images of the famous and infamous who crossed its threshold over the joint’s lifetime. The parties. The ends of wars. The changes from horse-drawn carriages to tin lizzies. But today, there are no greatest hits on the schedule. Today, there is only waiting. Killing time. Glancing at the clock, again. Last week’s stale gossip reheated for today’s visitors. Perhaps a weary remark by someone that “nothing ever happens around here”. The challenge, then: on this particular day, will all that nothing arrange itself into a scene, a small story about a small day, a tale worth telling? Or is the waiting all there is?
Making photographs on “nothing” days is an exercise, just like push-ups or jumping jacks. Often it merely amounts to keeping in practice. Staying limber. Just in case. Still, the pictures where nothing happens are occasionally, themselves, something else.
Anyone around here have a deck of cards?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN DISCUSSING THE UNIQUE WAY PHOTOGRAPHERS “SEE” THE WORLD, we often describe the process rather like the development of a muscle: work it, flex it, watch it become tougher and more responsive with each “rep”: repeat as necessary.
But lately, in looking at the general viewpoint that informs my own work, as well as the singular visions that seem to define a “style” for many others, I think we may be looking at the whole phenomenon a little backwards.
Instead of moving progressively toward some eventual destination of “seeing”, as if it’s a mountain top we hope to scale and plant a flag on, maybe the idea of a “photographer’s eye” is more internal, more zen if you like.
Maybe all the formative forces of our lives, including our raw experiences, our philosophical stance, and other stampers of individual personality, have already decided what our “eye” or viewpoint is. Perhaps what keeps us from seeing effectively with that eye is all the noise, distraction, and input from outside sources. Perhaps we arrive at our first camera with a clear windshield, knowing, on some inner level, how we view the world. And perhaps that pristine glass is obscured by the litter and smears of everything outside ourselves that serves to block our view. Maybe, just maybe, every photographer already has an innate knowledge of how he/she regards the world, and what kind of images support that view….if we can just keep the outside world from cluttering and occluding it.
Another way to express this condition might be to imagine ourselves as wearing a tilted blindfold, which is too askew to completely block our vision, but seriously compromises the quality of what we see. Under this idea, any real restoration of our inner eye must include the complete excising of that blindfold. And we approach that result through photography.
Testing these ideas takes a little honest introspection. Look at your own work over a protracted stretch of time. Aren’t there certain consistencies that emerge in the pictures you regard as the truest? It might be something very elemental, such as a love of landscapes, that perpetually re-asserts itself, despite the fact that you “shoot everything.” It might be a mood or a belief that recurs in your visual stories. You might be given to commentary, or celebration, or abstraction. Whatever features your “eye” has, it may have always been so, as a measure of your essential self, with your pictures becoming more and more effective the more you get out of your own way. In my own case, for example, I tend to see beauty or poetry in man-made objects to the same degree that others see in the natural world. Certainly I would never turn down the chance to snap a stunning sunset, and yet, in architecture, in design, or merely in the random arrangements of light and shadow, I can more persuasively argue for beauty than if I were to shoot a thousand roses a day for a thousand years. Some would use the above image to argue that I value things over people, but, to me, things make the case for people, and vice versa.
I also have a hard time deliberately creating something ugly, even in the cause of journalism or documentation. At some level I simply refuse to believe that the world is a horrible place, although I must often depict the horrible things within it. And so it is for you: that is, photography is also a self-assertion of some kind…..not a viewpoint that you are trying to acquire, but one which you are constantly struggling to refine and purify. That is, you already have a photographer’s eye. Now, you need to spend the rest of your life keeping garbage from flying into it or otherwise clouding your very trustworthy and personal vision.
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
THE BASIC STRUCTURE OF A LINEAR STORY IS ENGRAVED into the DNA of our collective minds in what amounts, essentially, to three words: beginning, middle, end. Three distinct phases that indicate the birth, development, and logical terminus of a narrative. You start at the left and end up at the right, like the eye reading a written sentence. That’s storytelling in a nutshell.
But are all three elements present in a photograph?
As a static moment stolen from a million zillion consecutive other moments, a frozen instant plucked out of context, a photo is, almost of necessity, missing some of the standard elements of a narrative. The shooter cannot take us on a complete journey from beginning to end. Instead, he must choose one part of that sequential timeline and make it speak for the entire process. And so we make pictures of things that are just getting under way. We make different pictures of things that are in the process of progressing or changing. We make still others of things that are coming to a close. What we choose to show affects the conversation we are having with our audience. Will they understand what point in the continuum of a story we’ve chosen to display? Does their imagination or memory supply missing information about what’s not shown, through speculation, intuition? Pictures can’t show everything, nor do all pictures even show the same kind of information. However, over generations of transactions between shooter and viewer, there is a kind of understood, if unspoken language of what was meant and what was received.
This exchange is instantaneous and instinctive, but we can step back and analyze it. For example, in the above photo, what information is given, and what is withheld? Are we at the entrance into something, or near the escape out of it? Is this a scene of quiet serenity or dark foreboding? Is there a correct answer? Does there need to be?
You and you alone control the choices, often made in an instant, of what visually makes it into the final edition of a photograph. Some of those choices will be deliberate. Others will be reactive. Photographers can either conceal or reveal, and their editorial decisions, whether done at leisure or in a blink, determine what pictures we regard as memorable, or visceral, or genuine. What I’m getting at here is that storytelling is only partly about equipment, or even conditions, like light or weather. And that only makes sense: it would be foolish, after all, to think of a novel as great merely because of which pencil or keypad the author used, or to judge a musical performance by the piano. And so the most crucial element in photography must, must, must be the eye. Once that is sharpened, storytelling hits full throttle, and, conversely, without that acuity, all we can hope for is the occasional happy accident. No one picture tells the entire story, but we are in charge of what clues make it to the viewer. And that is one amazing superpower.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHS ARE DOCUMENTS THAT ARE SHAPED BY PERFORMANCES. That sentence, at this point in history, seems so obvious that it seems superfluous to even state. But it wasn’t always seen that way.
The camera, at its creation, was feared and reviled as the very opposite of an art instrument, characterized as a soulless machine that recorded without seeing, without interpreting. Whereas the painter filtered the world through the experiences and emotions coursing through his heart and mind, the photographer just held a box, and the box merely measured light. The box was seen as a cold, lifeless thing could never render a breathing, living world. Could it?
But the box, it turned out, was never merely held, never just pointed, and its eye never merely etched data on a plate. How it was held, what it was pointed at made a crucial, measurable difference. What it framed and what it excluded made other differences. And then there was the eye of the thing. Turned out, even that glassy orb could, in time, be adjusted, made more sensitive, more attentive. In fact, photography was becoming, after the science was scoped out, a performer’s medium, no less than a person holding an instrument called a paintbrush, or striking an instrument called a piano. There was an expectation, an anxiety involved in the act, a desire to get it right. Each single photograph was subtlely different from all others, and the difference was in the nature of the performance.
I go through this meditation (or one like it) whenever I am on the eve of tackling a photographic subject that has eluded me for a long period of time. As you read this, I’m only days away from making a pilgrimage of sorts to such a subject, something that will be hard to re-visit in the future, and for which a lot of very fast, do-or-die decisions will be made in the moment. Well, do-or-die is a little dramatic: there is, after all, nothing really important on the line here. The subject matter doesn’t involve a breaking news event, nor will my success or failure in bringing back the pictures I want have any impact on life as we know it.
I just want to get it right.
The image seen here is of an access gate that is as close as I have ever gotten to my subject in the past. It is also the least beautiful feature of said subject, hence my annoying case of nerves.
My anxiety, though truly laughable/pathetic, accompanies things that I care about, and maybe that’s a good definition of art….an attempt to make sense of the things we care about. Just pointing a box cannot produce that feeling. But photography has never really been about the box, has it?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
This is important. This means something….
Roy Neary, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind
I HAVE NEVER TRIED TO SCULPT THE MASHED POTATOES FROM OUR NIGHTLY DINNER into a replica of Devil’s Tower, but, as a photographer, I have experienced plenty of Roy Neary “a-ha” moments, marveling as a seemingly bland tableau pops into something very, very different in my mind’s eye. It’s the transformational moment that, when it occurs, justifies all of the sit-and-wait and close-but-no-cigar moments associated with making pictures. It is so invigorating that it re-enlists the weariest of us for yet one more tour of duty. Even the chance for experiencing a Roy Neary moment, what I call the Dreyfus Reflex, will shore up our courage and refresh our dedication. Hey, magic happened that one other time, we say. It might happen again.
But learning to see creatively is not merely a matter of being willing to receive a visual message from the great beyond. Seeing is an exercise, no less than a push-up or a jumping jack. It’s a matter of perfecting yourself as a receptacle, as a kind of pipe through which ideas can flow freely. The pipe has to be constantly widened and re-opened, and the exercise of learning to see ensures that, once an idea is at the entry point to the pipe, its path is unobstructed. Thus, the photographic concept is not coming from you so much as it is flowing through you. Learning to see photographically means, then, being “open” to a perception that, without practice, might never become apparent, but which, having become so, urges a photograph.
It means, in a sense, getting out of your own way.
Going back to our Close Encounters metaphor, Roy doesn’t start out thinking his dinner spuds resemble a mountain top. He gradually learns to accommodate ideas that are so un-obvious to everyone else that he seems crazy. Effectively, Roy has become an artist, in that he can look at one thing and see something beyond its mere surface appearance. In that moment, he is every poet, every novelist, every painter, and, yes, every photographer who ever lived. Similarly, any subject matter, such as the stalk of wheat seen here, can take on endless new identities, once we’ve become comfortable with it being more than one thing, or one version of a thing.
I once had a friend tell me that his favorite compliment as a photographer occurred when he was comparing pictures that he and a friend had taken from the very same trip, passing by identical sites and locations. “Where did you see that??” his companion remarked, indicating that while the two men’s sets of eyes were physically pointed in many of the same directions. they had come away with vastly different impressions. Does this process make one set of pictures “better” than another? Certainly not. But it does illustrate that there is more than one level of seeing, so that, even if my friend were to visit all those places alone, on different days, very different things would emerge in the pictures from varying shoots. What accounts for this variance? The light and the subject could be made to match: the gear and its settings could be replicated: even the precise time of day could be re-created, and yet the pictures of the same things by the same person would probably contrast noticeably with each other. And knowing all of that, when you set out as a photographer, means you’re aware of, and eager to exploit, the Dreyfus Reflex. What you see is just the first step of the journey: how you see it determines where the journey will eventually lead.
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
SOONER OR LATER, EVERY PHOTOGRAPHER, sifting through subject matter that is largely invisible to passersby, will elicit the question, “what are you looking at?” I seldom have a good answer for such queries, which usually come when I’m crawling on the ground, squinting at the sky, or otherwise peering at, well, you name it. The reason I tend to reply “oh, nothing” is that the answer won’t make sense to anyone else anyway. I mean, why am I staring at random pile of roadside rocks? Why do I find a rusty gate hinge fascinating at the moment? It’s actually easier to be assumed by people in the area to be the town idiot, because, the faster people write me off as mad, the sooner I can get back to what I’m doing, which is trying to make a picture. The process is seldom logical and always appears odd from the outside.
Hell, it appears odd from the inside. Like, of my head.
In one such instance, people see me staring at leaves. Dead or dying leaves. Wet ones. Half rotted ones. Leaves that are placed first on this side, then on that one, then directly in light, then cloaked in shadow. My interest in them isn’t botanical, since I often know next to nothing of the objects I’m photographing (not scientifically, anyway), and so I can’t even invent some great story about why I have chosen one over the other. They are just abstract texture to me, texture that almost always varies wildly from leaf to leaf. If I see anything symbolic at all in them, I probably see the human hand, specifically the aging human hand. In recent years I’ve taken a number of images of my ninety-year-old father’s hands, which are, at this point in his life, almost as telling about his history as the lines on his face. In turn, I began to study my own hands, which are twenty-three years behind his, but well on the path toward “wizened” status. It was at some point that leaves, which sport their own age spots, wrinkles, scars and discolorations, starting to talk a bit louder to me.
Over the past several years, my Phytomorphology series (which merely takes its name from the term for the study of plants’ external structures) has sported no other captions instead of randomly assigned numbers, a signal that, even though the collected pictures might look like part of a larger study, they are no such thing. And while I could have called them “big leaf”, “green leaf” or “dead leaf”, the arcane fakery of pretending I’m on some kind of academic mission amuses me, so….Phytomorphology 23, Phytomorphology 67, and so forth. So now we return to the sight of me randomly scanning the ground (with no particular purpose in mind), an activity that makes outsiders ask what I’m looking at. Now, I could improvise a great little comment about the veinous textures or the play of light on irregular surfaces or any other number of statements that would make me sound more like a “real” photographer, but, in truth, the leaves are merely a whim, perhaps more so than any other subject I’ve ever shot. I keep coming back to a quote from comedian Lenny Bruce, who was asked by a reporter why he chose this phrase or that structure for a given monologue. His answer: I just do it, that’s all.
In photography, as in any other form of personal expression, sometimes a thing just is, and there’s no point in being fussy about the why of it. I’m not clever enough to have a formalized reason for everything I shoot. Sometimes you just know, and you go. One more anecdote to close out: a farmer is working with his herd of cattle near the edge of a country road. Some city slicker who’s fascinated by this slows his car, asking, “excuse me, are those Guernseys or Herefords?”. “Heck”, says the farmer, “I just call ’em moo-cows.”
Maybe that’s my answer, the next time someone catches me in a meadow looking at leaves. “Gee, I guess I got some wrong information. They told me there were moo-cows around here…”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MOST DAYS, MAKING PICTURES IS A LABOR OF LOVE.
On a few days, however, it’s just….labor.
Just as it’s harder, on occasion, to manage a radiant smile for everyone you meet, there are days when photography can, for a short while, become a chore. Homework. I can’t speak for anyone but myself here, but, as I experience it, making pictures is a deliberate mutiny against the forces of despair. And while despair itself seems never to weaken or abate, my own armor against it can occasionally buckle or crack. That’s when pointing a camera at anything can seem, just for a time, to be a worthless exercise, something too frivolous to be of value in a world that seems bent on ugliness.
Thankfully, I eventually recall that making pictures, at least for me (standard disclaimer), is an act of faith. Faith that the world will continue. Faith that there are things within it that ought to be praised, sung, celebrated. In returning to the role of photographer, I also return to a new sense of what kind of photographer I am, and must generally be. I can’t fixate on the horrible, although sometimes my pictures will show traces of it. I can’t marinate in misery, or use my images to do so. I have to seek beauty, and not just the cute-kitty or pretty-flower varieties. It’s a careful balance. My work is biased toward the affirmation of things, and yet I do acknowledge that some things and some people in life are, simply, no damned good. But beauty isn’t a denial of ugliness. It’s an answer to it. An alternative. And on different days there will be different ways to fight that fight.
Photography came into my life as a kind of magic trick, as something so amazing on its face that I felt drawn to learn something about how the trick was done. Having passed that purely technical point, I now see it as perhaps the most important tool available to me in trying to craft a world I long for, as important in its way as my writing or music or graphic work has always been. It gives me a distinct voice. Other times it just gives me an extra eye, or opens the two I already possess. And while there will always be times when we all think the most intelligent response to life is to shut all the doors and windows, we will, eventually, recall that making pictures is about opening those things back up…..and that a house full of light is one hell of a lot easier to live in.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CHOICES ARE WHAT HAPPENS WHEN TIME AND OPPORTUNITY MEET. The more one has the chance to see, coupled with the leisure to explore or appreciate the value of what one sees, the more a photograph has the freedom to breathe, to percolate, or indeed to happen at all. And perceiving when all these conditions are in play can lead to images that often were not on your original agenda, but revealed themselves while you were preparing to do “something else”. Let’s think of it as being divided into journey pictures and destination pictures.
The destination picture is, of course, the one we came to shoot, the task or target of the day. The journey picture makes itself manifest as we are on the way to the destination….walking, waiting, enduring detours or delays. Picture the destination as a mountain top and the journey as the steps up that mountain. We can visualize how great the view from the summit will be, but we can also learn to see opportunities at every stage of our upward trek. Eventually some of our favorite pictures are those we shoot of something else on the way. They may in fact be better than the destination shot we had in mind.
Walks along paths, views from connecting trains or buses, even, as seen in the above image, transitions between floors in stairwells may not be “about” something as much as our main photographic quarry. However, it’s short-sighted to think of only point “A” or point “B” as worthy of our attention, when things at point “A-plus-1/4” or point “B-minus-1/2” might also be viable. Remember what we said at the beginning about the meeting of time and opportunity. Consider the technique that accompanies our formal plan. We’d be likely to take all the time and shots we felt necessary once we’d ascended our imaginary mountain. We’d resist being rushed. We’d be eager to explore every angle, exposure and compositional choice. However, we can get into such a rush trying to get topside that we ignore any or all of the fruits available on our ascent, or we might be in some kind of self-imposed hurry that would prevent our slowing down along the way to seize many other chances. Certainly, it’s human to prioritize things, and so we arrive at many photographic sites with a list of things we must do, a list-making exercise that can shut down our full creativity, narrowing the flow of “acceptable” subject matter, turning an open mind into a kinked garden hose.
The shot you see here was actually a very instantaneous one, the keeper among three or four frames, and, unless you love stairs, the picture is not “about” anything per se: the subject matter, the story, is light. But look at the light there was to work with! It has gradations from yellow to gold to red to green: it reveals and conceals at the same time: and it’s such a great “explainer” of the marble texture that nothing else needs to be going on in the shot….it just is. Now, everyone is different. I myself could easily have missed this shot, fixated as I was on where I was heading and worrying about having enough time once I got there. But trying for this image only cost me seconds, yet it was time enough to pair with opportunity and give me…options. Learning to see is not only about having things register on the optic nerve: it’s also about learning to think editorially, discriminately. To being open. Looking back over the camera roll this came from, the thing I was scrambling up the stairs to shoot was actually a bit of a disappointment. The thing on the way was, in reality, a better way to spend my time, and exercise my eye.
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
A Failed Harvest.
The Fish That Got Away.
I Had It, But I Lost It.
Mistakes Were Made.
However you term episodes of photographic failure…..I mean, complete, utter freaking camera-borne defeat, two things are true.
It does happen.
And it will happen to you.
Not that many of us want to admit it, mind you. In an age in which, on any given photo day, we almost always bring back some kind of technically complete image, it’s easy to confuse any product with a successful one. Yeah, it’s a picture. But that doesn’t make it a good picture.
In the old days, there were was a more dramatic line between success and failure, since failure usually meant no picture at all. Underexposed, unrecognizable blobs. Masses of color that, coherence-wise, added up to nothing. Not so in our current era, in which it’s much more likely that the resulting image is, for lack of a better term, usable. Factor in increasingly facile repair tools and editing processes, and that number of “acceptables” climbs even further.
But you know when a picture has what it takes, and to what extent you’ve bent the rules of editorial judegment with one, even going so far as to talking yourself into thinking it’s better than it really is. That’s the seductive power of digital, in that it brings even our worst work close to the passable mark, making it harder to disown our “kids” than it was in the day when a lousy picture was more irretrievably bad, that is, beyond intervention. But it’s our very ability to intervene that can convince us that the shot was worth intervening over, and that’s frequently just not true.
And so there will be bupkis days. We walk out boldly. We are equipped. We are artistically hungry. We are experienced and trained. We know what we want.
And yet we bring back nothing.
Never forget that the ability to know that you missed the mark (even mightily) is the most valuable skill you will ever develop as a photographer. The strength to say “no” to yourself evolves slowly. In some of us, it never evolves at all. But we should thank Camera God for it, and, by extension, thank the same God for the demonstrably bad photos we are likely to make from time to time. Because if we can’t tell excellent from excrement in our own work, the game really is up. That’s why I am always banging on about loving your mistakes, because finally, they are your best teachers. It ain’t fun to be around them, but, then again, as you recall your most astute mentors, how many of them were a groove to hang with? Whatever. For photography’s sake, we all need to become comfortable with dumping the occasional day’s work in the garbage. Because nothing converts garbage into gorgeous other than hard, unsentimental work. There never has been any other shortcut and there never will be. Or to frame it in food terms (and eventually I always do), consider software and such as sauce. It’s tasty, but it ain’t no substitute for steak.