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.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I REMEMBER WHAT A MAD MIX OF SKILL AND DUMB LUCK IT TOOK ME to score any usable concert images in the glory days of film photography, which has been one reason why, for both economic and mental health reasons, I tended not to attempt them too often. I have known several people over the decades who simply kill at such work, and their abilities leave me as stunned as a caveman who has just discovered fire. Such people are masters of light, wizards of journalism, and maybe, just maybe, unofficial auxiliary members of the bands they cover. They’re that linked in.
Many years and many technological advances later, one of the barriers to my becoming a great concert shooter has vanished, in that, in the digital era, I can at least afford to try a lot of things without putting my wallet on the endangered species list. And perhaps that fact has, in turn, also safeguarded my mental health as well. ‘Cuz, since I can now shoot, and shoot, and shoot, I can flail away until I actually produce something worth the effort, improving my overall demeanor and putting me once again in harmony with cute puppies, adorable babies, and unicorns. Of course, I have expanded my play area in recent years to include more offstage/backstage images, not only because they are technically easier to control, but because they contain something that stage performances may not: that is, unguarded, candid moments, or the exact opposite energy seen during a concert.
As a case in point: many current artists are making a bigger percentage of their touring “take” from on-site music sales than in earlier eras, and so the good old autograph table experience frequently offers the occasional relaxed moment. It doesn’t have the same drama as a classic shot of a guitar god shredding his way to immortality, but it almost counts as street photography, depending on what kind of energy you’re trying to capture. I myself enjoy the greater freedom to grab more of the miracle moments in a show, but I also find it liberating to work both ends of the gig.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
TIME, BEING A HUMAN CONSTRUCT (AND ESSENTIALLY AN ILLUSION) is one of those handy mind tricks we use to convince ourselves that we’re in charge. That we know how to plan, that we can bend events to our will, plot them out on a strategic map. Catch them in our camera boxes. It’s pure nonsense of course, just like stipulating that we all believe that green pieces of paper with dead presidents on them are of value. But as long as we’re all in on the joke, then…what?
Photographers are all about time, of course. Stealing it, freezing it, even trying to render it irrelevant. With a camera in hand, we dare to declare that time is what we say it is. Or isn’t. And on this day, billions of images will have been shot by breakfast in an effort to mark the act of crossing the meridian, the passing of one year into another (or, in this case, one decade into another). We feel some kind of biological urge to record what it was like/will be like. Snap. Here we are at the stroke of midnight, when one thing became another. Can you tell the difference? Can you show the difference in a frame? Time’s status as the Great Hoax doesn’t diminish its power. And so we click, and play.
What you see here is the attempt to imprison two years within a single image. I was struck, New Year’s Eve, by the contrast between my party-prone neighbors (they of the brightly lit trees to the left) and my own party-resistant nature (the quiet patio to the right), so much so that I thought the comparison of the two worlds was worth a picture. I set up the camera from my bedroom window and ran a few tests as the last hours of 2019 drained away, then tripped my remote timer in the final seconds of that dying year, so that the 43-second exposure would originate in one year and end in the next. Nothing much would change over the taking of the image, but I would know that I had crammed two years into one frame. Like time itself, a trick, an illusion. Turns out, that one year looks quite like another, with less to distinguish them than there is to distinguish my neighbor’s busy yard from my still one. There wasn’t so much as a fleeting firecracker light trail to betray the secret that I had taken a picture of time travel. Just the strange fable in my head. Just as it’s always been.
Happy New Year. Happy Wise Year. Happy Humble Year. Happy Whatever You Need It To Be Year. I hope we can tell a difference between the time we think we’ve lost and the time we think we have.
And here, again, is to the sweet and mad miracle of imprisoning magic in a box.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. ——William Shakespeare, As You Like It
And though she feels as if she’s in a play….she is, anyway…. ——Lennon & McCartney, Penny Lane
THE NATURE OF STREET PHOTOGRAPHY IS THE AWARENESS THAT WE ARE ALL PERFORMERS, that, from sunrise to sunset we are carrying out roles, parts played to move society along or smooth our own way within it. The most obvious symbols of performance….masks, costumes, a proscenium…these are all artifacts of the stage, and are but a small part of the dramas and comedies awaiting the attentive eye of the photographer, most of them outside the physical limits of the theatre.
We assume parts that convey ritual, occupations, celebration, even our rank within our communities. We divide our years into seasons and our seasons into roles, marks on the calendar that also define how we will dress ourselves, the codes of behavior we will observe, and the slogans and symbols we use to commune with all the other players. Thus, in street photography, we train our eyes to spot the beginnings, middles and endings of these “scenes”, to see performances in nearly every aspect of life. Some of us are destined to go for the laugh, while others seemed fated for tragedy. We invent insignia, uniforms, jargon, procedures for playing our parts, like the policemen seen here standing on alert at what will be the beginning of a parade. Over time, we develop, as an actor does, “bits of business”, ways of doing things, each with their own key visual signatures. But street work happens in the unranked and the unorganized as well…..indeed, there are actors and actresses everywhere we look. When we first begin to take notice, we may find it hard to see their stories; after a while, we can more easily trace where they’ve come from, where they’re headed, and what constitutes a climax or a turning point in their lives.
Some people choose to see street photography as eavesdropping, as an invasion of privacy. I reject this idea, because my personal intention is not to degrade but to cherish, to attempt pictures that celebrate the universal struggles of the human animal. The thing that makes our part-playing truly lonely is not the sensation that someone is watching, but the fear that no one is. Just as literature, poetry, painting and song all tie the travails of the individual to the traits of the general, so to, then, does the best photography. For if we are all “merely players”, may we not all long for the occasional chance to take a bow?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
JUST AS NUMBERS AND LETTERS ARE SYMBOLIC OF THINGS LARGER THAN THEMSELVES, cues in photography act as a visual vocabulary, a kind of shorthand for more complex ideas. This way of showing ideas through a commonly recognized series of signals means we don’t always have to explain everything from scratch every time we create a picture. In order to convey the idea of a train, we don’t have to show the entire history or design of locomotives: a railroad crossing sign sells the concept immediately. And so, as storytellers. we use symbols to get to the point faster, and, nearly two centuries into our shared art, the shortcuts get more compact and more immediate with the passage of time.
One of the ideas that we convey in this way is the idea of limits or barriers, especially images that show confinement or limited admittance. Signs, lights, gates, traffic cones, warning signals, all convey a ton of information in a short space of time…everything from beware to keep out. These cues also allow a photograph to be all shorthand, to be about the limit or barrier. The image seen here adequately conveys the idea of a physical limit with a very meager amount of data. Even resolution itself has been relaxed, leaving just the suggestion of textures that are typically rendered in fine detail. There are no clearly readable signs, no clue to what the viewer is being kept from, no idea of whether the gate represents safety or repression. And while this symbol conveys a limit on our movement; everything else is open to interpretation. In some cases, not revealing what lies beyond the gate may make for a more intriguing image than if the photographer were to show everything in full. The beauty of this process is that most photographic ideas can be expressed with a very spare inventory of information, as our eyes have learned, over years, to see interpretively, enabling us to decode what the photographer as encoded. It’s a very intimate relationship.
All of which, I believe, argues for making your picture’s case in as few strokes as possible. We still pay more attention to framing, i.e., what fits in the rectangle, versus composition, or the arrangement and selection process within the borders of our pictures. We sometimes overcrowd and oversell messages which may be conveyed more effectively with much less information. Learning how to say more with less comes slowly; we need to build up a substantial log of attempts before we can begin to tweeze out the most effective amongst them. But that is the difference, as we often say, between taking a picture and making one, or the difference between pictures that are merely nice and those that are essential.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS, THE SOCIAL-MEDIA EQUIVALENT OF SMACKING SOMEONE ON THE BACK and saying “Attaboy” is affixing the remark “Great capture!” to your “like” of another person’s images. This is meant to be a compliment, but I think it is misapplied. Of course, on one level, I admit that carping about one little word constitutes world-class nitpicking on my part. On the other hand, I think we need to think critically about what happens in the making of an effective picture. It’s an active, rather than passive, process.
In one sense, a camera does, in fact, “capture” a scene, snatching a millionth of a minute from its place in the steady flow of time. But seldom does a golden moment or lovely subject present its best self to us, ready to be harvested, requiring only that we lower our butterfly net. Photography is a much more deliberate art than that. In fact, we often happen upon images of things that are not yet “ready for their close-up”, in that the first way we see them may not be the best way for us to show them to others. Long before the snap of the shutter, we select our angle, our composition, our light, and even reject all of those choices and make them all over again. We are carefully crafting the best way to reveal something….not merely happening by and passively recording it.
In this spirit, the word “capture” simply isn’t strong enough, as it implies little more than luck in the production of a great photograph. In fact it is really describing a snapshot, in which something very great may have been gathered, but without much in the way of effort. It’s like complimenting someone on catching a baseball no one was expected to catch, a celebration of good fortune rather than skill. Photographs aren’t made merely by grabbing whatever the camera is pointed at: they’re made by a selective process of saying “yes” to some elements by including them in the frame and then reaffirming those elements even further by saying “no” to many other elements that might otherwise clutter or complicate the communication between image and viewer.
Ken Rockwell, a pro photographer whose www.kenrockwell,com site also functions as an online clearing house of technical information on the specs of various camera manufacturers, occasionally steps away from his role as Lord High Adjudicator of gear and reminds his readers of the true essentials of their art. In these random pep talks he will often insist that, in the end, nothing….no lens, no camera, no shiny new toy.. can supplant the human equation in the making of pictures. One of his best such sermons illustrates (far better than your humble author can), just what an “on purpose” process is afoot in the best pictures, as in this paragraph, where he discusses the difference between composition and the mere act of framing:
“Composition is the organization of elements within a frame that leads to the strongest, clearest, cleanest, simplest, most well-balanced and therefore best picture. The best composition is the strongest way of seeing a subject. Framing is what you do by zooming in and out, by moving the camera up and down and left and right, and by rotating it to any angle, including vertical and horizontal. Framing has almost nothing to do with composition, but sadly, few photographers realize this. Framing can’t do much of anything to change the relationships between objects. Framing is easy. One usually can frame a picture after it’s shot by cropping. Composition is very difficult. Composition is what makes or doesn’t make a picture. Composition is the organization of elements in the picture in relation to the other elements…..”
Nothing, of course, will ever eradicate all the “great capture” salutes from the interweb, and maybe we should just stipulate that a compliment is a compliment. But I love to emphasize, since it is so important, that what you all do in the creation of wonderful images is purposeful, not random, that great pictures seldom just jump into your camera. When a composition is eloquent, it is usually a photographer, and not a camera, who has given it voice.
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.