By MICHAEL PERKINS
STREET PHOTOGRAPHY IS A UNIQUE MARRIAGE OF SETTING AND SUBJECTS, that delicate balance of locations and denizens that make streets into neighborhoods. The drama created in such studies is always a thrilling, moment-to-moment improvisation in which small things generate big effects. Incremental changes in the scenario, like waiting for the old man with the dog to walk directly under the deli sign, or framing the sullen teen right next to a reflective window, can be the difference between something that’s merely quaint and something that’s universal. And the more crowded with subjects the frame is in a street shot, the more options there are to weigh. Doing choreography for a lone dancer is not the same thing as blocking out space an entire troupe.
Streets shots are about weighing the importance of several things at once, in opposition to each other rather than as isolated elements. Tensions are set, tightened and released; motives are explored and exploited. In 2021’s cautious re-emergence from our respective quarantine caves, we are not only re-learning the flexing of our own muscles; we are also watching the equivalent adjustment in others. With or without a camera in hand, we are all more deliberate people watchers in this nervous re-entry phase. People are not, at least for right now, mere wallpaper, but active orbiting bodies in little constellations. We are a little more keenly aware, as we venture out, what their personal Great To Be Back moments are. Perhaps, in time, we will go back to our old habit of generally walking past each other, but now, in this careful new world, we are paying a little more attention. And those of us who, through photography, are in the habit of seeing with a little extra intensity will be in for a feast.
As stated before, the more people you decide to include in a street shot, the more choreography there is to fuss over. In the “day-out-with-dad” scenario shown here, I had several stories that all wanted telling at the same time. In some frames shot over the space of a minute (about eight), various players were all contending for star status. In some shots, the father seemed to be guiding the kids and the dog. In a few, the dog’s personality as explorer-at-large seemed to place his energy in charge. In yet more, the young girl seemed to be trying to run things by standing atop the rock on which, in the selected frame, she’s seen leaning. Thus, in the final version, she’s a little more passive, Dad is trying to keep things in balance, and the dog is definitely on point as the overall leader of the expedition.
All versions of this scene had their elements of tension, warmth and humor, and so in choosing a single final rendition, I was neither right or wrong. The joy of the enterprise was in the element of spontaneous creation offered by what was happening upon the stage and amongst the players. I could write the ending so the guy gets the girl or where the cowboy just rides into the sunset, but that part is really unimportant. In street photography, the potential is the attraction. We are only able to extract a single instant to suggest a whole reality, and both the thrill and the terror of that choice, while it’s no walk in the park, is, for some, simply irresistible.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN BEGINNING FORMAL INSTRUCTION IN PHOTOGRAPHY, students are typically steeped in whole systems of procedure on the creation of a composition. In this pursuit, we’ve all trudged through swamps of techno-sludge, from “golden triangle” to “rule of thirds” to “leading lines”, along with dozens of other schemes for organizing visual information within the frame. Many of these credos are, in fact, valuable in training the eye to prioritize the data in their pictures and streamline their effectiveness, and I applaud their use. What irks the semanticist within me, however, is when these tips are referred to as rules. That’s when things wander into the weeds.
This is not mere finicky wordplay on my part; first, the idea of the word “rules” being applied to something as mutative as art makes no sense to me. It is in the defiance of accepted norms that art fully triumphs, and photography cannot breathe if it’s drowning in its own catechism. I understand that we humans love to list things, to map steps out in order of perceived importance. However, when it comes to arranging the photographic frame, I contend that all the approaches we learn about are merely that…approaches, and that, were I to grudgingly use the word rule in regard to composition, that there would only be one: engage the eye.
What else is there? Photographs begin as one person’s vision sent forth with the aspiration of becoming a shared experience. To that end, everything is about grabbing the viewer’s eye and effectively saying, here is where I want you to look; here is the order of importance among the things in this picture. All of the tricks taught about composition are merely a means to acheiving, by many roads, this one objective. Use whatever graphs, spirals, force perspectives or focus tricks you like, or mix them all together; if they don’t result in a conversation between you, the picture and the audience, then you have nothing except mere technical mastery. And just as there are paintings that are more expert in execution than in emotional effect, there are millions of wondrous exposures that communicate nothing.
In the inset above, the original of a street scene image is an attempt to express the size and energy of an urban neighborhood. There’s nothing technically wrong with the picture, but, after looking at it for several weeks, I decided that the energy of the shot lay not in the car traffic or even the height of the buildings, but in the conversation between the two men at left. In the cropped version of the shot, seen directly above, this relationship is pushed to the foreground, without losing the feel of the city’s busy energy or scope. Certainly, basic compositional rules might have pronounced the first shot “balanced”, but it’s the deliberate intervention taken to create the tighter version that is an act of composition. And, of course, this is not meant to hold my own work out as an example to be followed. It’s just an illustration of the point that rule-breaking is where pictures begin, not where they go to die. Even though a picture is mounted on a wall with the help of a hammer and nail, no one would argue that either the hammer or the nail is what makes the picture compelling. Engage the eye, and you will have faithfully executed the only compositional “rule” that matters.
THE IMAGE YOU SEE HERE IS NOT MINE, although I’d gladly claim it anyday. It was taken by a lady named Judith Shields, an enthusiastic amateur who recently entered it in a photographic contest and apparently earned some distinction with it. Where she finally placed in the winners’ circle is not as significant, however, as the fact that she was docked points by the judge of the competition because the center of the flower, being fairly open, did not conform to his concept of what constituted a “correct” depiction of the subject. Or something. Since the remark makes no sense whatsoever in terms of either art or photography, it understandably sparked an online thread about (1) why such a criterion should even be considered, and, as the conversation blossomed out, (2) what the value of photographic contests even is in the first place.
In the interest of transparency, let me state unequivocally, that the idea of pitting artists against each other and weighing their efforts as you might evaluate tomatoes at the state fair is anathema to me on its face. I realize that a select number of such contests actually result in increased prestige or opportunity for photographers, but that number is extremely small, and usually tied to specific professional organizations that are, in turn, linked to the print industry. Many more of these runoffs, though, are little more than vanity projects, and the value of both the judges and the judging varies wildly. To look at Ms. Shields’ picture and see anything else besides beauty and technical mastery is to pretty much miss the overall point of photography in particular, or art in general. Shooters take the world as they find it, and deciding not to make an image of a flower because it’s not at the right stage of “readiness” is beyond silly. And then there is the nagging question of who these judges are, and who, exactly, entrusted them with the safekeeping of All Photographic Truth.
And this doesn’t even begin to cover the profit angle of photo contests, hundreds of which not only charge admission fees, but which also post arcane terms of agreement that, if carefully examined, preserve the creator’s “copyright” while allowing the hosts of the contest near- complete control of what happens to the artist’s pictures, issues ranging from where they can be published to how they can be cropped or contextualized. Ms. Shields’ flower could, under the terms of such rules, be used to promote fertilizer or cheeseburgers, should the contest gods be so inclined, and she might have no say whatever in the matter. Finally, the idea of competition among artists flies in the face of a photographer’s duty to himself or herself, which is to produce the work and live by the work, without needing to offer either explanation or alibi. The fact that this beautiful picture exists is enough to justify that existence, in that it was the creation of a person of sensitivity and vision. What crown or laurel, conferred on it by any outside jury, can add a scintilla of extra value beyond that?
Volumes could be written about judges and critics who initially disqualified what, in time, became the world’s photographic literature on the basis of this or that arbitrary rule or regulation. Pictures by Alfred Steiglitz, Walker Evans, Robert Frank and others were once routinely dismissed based on arcane concepts of composition, light, focus or other arbitrary standards that have no place in art. Finally, either a work connects with people or it doesn’t, a truth that no panel of curators or judges can alter by sniffing around the edges looking for something to make themselves seem more important. At last, it’s the pictures that either speak or don’t.
This one does.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
TO PERFECT THE PRACTICE OF PHOTOGRAPHY, YOU MUST FIRST ENDEAVOR to perfect yourself. Cameras are merely recording devices, and rather dumb ones at that, without the guidance of the human eye. And keeping that eye, and the spirit that animates it, free of pollution or imperfection, is the work of a lifetime.
Seeing well often entails slowing down the very process of seeing, of letting time refine your way of taking in information. Call it contemplation, call it concentration, but know that making images is chiefly abetted by improving how you perceive the world. How can it be otherwise? At times like this, I head for the pages of Leaves Of Grass, Walt Whitman’s grand map for becoming a human, perhaps the greatest literature ever created in America. He rings inside my head every time I slow myself enough to perceive the world on its terms, rather than on my own. And when his astonishing language and the glory of the world converge, I feel like I have at least a fighting chance to make a picture that I may, in time, cherish.
To me, every hour of the day and night is an unspeakably perfect miracle.
Give me, odorous at sunrise, a garden of beautiful flowers where I can walk undisturbed.
I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.
Re-examine all that you have been told; dismiss that which insults your soul.
Armed with such words, or words that likewise define truth for yourself, you find that the pictures come, first in a trickle, then in a floodtide. The world is filled with images that are virtually waiting to jump into your mind and your camera. Open the door and bid them welcome.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE BY-PRODUCTS OF PROLONGED ISOLATION is the re-training of the artist’s eye, as more and more information is gleaned from fewer and fewer sources. The lifer convict thus knows more about masonry than the non-prisoner, simply because he is forced to stare at it longer. Or, to put it another way, as a person’s physical world contracts, as it has for many in the present era, things that are repeatedly re-seen can reveal more data than those that are quickly glimpsed. Notice that I am into my fourth sentence before uttering the dread word minimalism. And yet here we are.
I almost never deliberately seek out minimal compositions, at least not as part of some aesthetic religion; that is, I don’t set set out to make pictures that are, as I call them, “nearly naked”, stripped of all decoration or ornament. However, during the various stages of the creation of an image, I often decide that simpler is better, and re-set my course accordingly. And, as the worldwide Forced Hibernation has dragged on, I have found that a certain streamlining of many of my pictures is kicking in organically. Some of it occurs because I am forced to work with the same limited subject matter again and again, since traveling to a wider numbers of locations is presently off the menu. That can mean doing more than one “pass” on some pictures, and discovering. in that process, that I can, indeed, say more with less.
Those who already possessed sage wisdom or a certain Zen zeal might remark here that I should always have been on this journey, this growing sense of how to go about de-cluttering my vision. And to that, I would answer a resounding “maybe”. The image you see here is so simple a composition that I always would have approached it without the need for passing airplanes, utility poles, the surrounding parking lot, etc. However, where, before, I might have favored more detailed tableaux, I am finding, in a newly compelling way, that increasingly simpler pictures are calling to me these days. Likewise the rendering of excess detail or texture, which you’ll see is fairly absent from this picture. Does this mean I am growing as a person? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I am making pictures in a different creative environment for the moment, albeit with no guarantees that my technique will be fundamentally altered once I’m allowed out of the house more often (this site is three miles from my home). Still.
“There are two ways to be rich” children’s author Jackie French Koller wrote in 1948. “One is by acquiring much, and the other is by desiring little”. So, while I’m looking more intently at the masonry within my cell these days anyway, I might as well find out if that richer way of seeing will follow me once I’m sprung. In the words of another sage, Chuck Berry, “C’est la vie, say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell…”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE ABILITY OF A PHOTOGRAPH TO PRETTY MUCH ILLUSTRATE EVERYTHING IN LIFE can tempt shooters to try to do exactly that; to pack a universe of stuff into every frame. In the minds of some of us, the camera is an information-gathering machine, and so, the more information, the better. But if we call to mind the photographs that have affected us most profoundly, we may see that there’s a hierarchy in the way information is presented in many of those uber-keeper photos. Everything in the world is not a number one priority; events and experiences are always ranked higher in importance than some and lower than others. And the photograph that shows too much may actually not communicate anything particularly well. Things need to be chosen and unchosen in order for a picture to breathe.
As a consequence, rather than showing four hundred trees of equal size and detail in a frame, we deputize one or several trees to stand for the entire forest. In any routine edit, we decide to crop out things which are part of the scene but which either don’t, narratively speaking, carry their weight, or, worse, act as distractions. It’s not only all right not to show everything, it’s a really important part of the covenant between artist and audience.
When you leave out some kinds of information, you’re respecting your viewer’s intelligence, since you’re recognizing that you both share a vast store of common experience, some of it so obvious that it can merely be implied and yet understood. As a very simple example, in the image seen here of a young boy running through the woods, his body language conveys all that’s needed for a complete understanding of the scene. Every part of his physical energy advertises the freedom and excitement he is experiencing, even though the picture provides little more than his silhouette and nothing whatever of his features. Would he be any more clearly delineated as a happy young boy if you were to show his smiling face? And as to the surrounding trees; they are, in life, rich in texture, but the prevailing shadow doesn’t keep them from being identified as trees, and so, really, how much better could that work, even if they were all in complete sunlight?
I’m only occasionally an advocate of minimalism for its own sake, mainly because in many cases it’s not the right approach. But over-delivering on information, while creating a thorough “document” of a scene, also has the potential for short-circuiting an image’s impact. As is often the cases, the best rules are the ones that come equipped with tons of exceptions.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THEY HAVE KNOWN EACH OTHER FOR WHAT FEELS LIKE FOREVER, and yet the time that’s passed between them seems like mere minutes. They elicit envious sighs when they are seen, perpetually locked arm in arm. They are the proof that love can last, that some things can actually be eternal. That a promise matters.
They walk a little slower.
They measure out their days in tiny things. Small wins. A nice cup of tea. A shared confidence. A fond memory. Maybe even a joke they’ve told so many times that they’ve both memorized it.
And they seek the sunshine.
Carefully, deliberately, they move through yet another sunset. Is it one of their last? A world races past them with its myriads miracles and miseries. It’s all a blur to them, and not just because they’ve misplaced their glasses. Their focus on each other remains sharp and sure; it’s the rest of the world that’s fuzzy, that’s uncertain.
They hardly have separate heartbeats anymore. When one sniffs, the other sneezes. And the most amazing thing that starts each day is their first glimpse of the other.
The calendar tells them that a lifetime has gone bay since first they said yes to each other.
And yet, it seems a matter of a moment.
They make a pretty picture.
(2021 marks the beginning of The Normal Eye’s tenth year. Endless thanks to our longstanding friends and newest arrivals. Please share what you find useful in our latest or archived pages and alert us to what we can do better. Peace to all.)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHER LUCAS GENTRY has been mentioned in many of those handy web searches that collate the most memorable quotes about camera work, little bon mots that help spice up term papers and make bloggers (ahem) sound erudite. His single sentence, “Photography has nothing to do with the camera” is guaranteed to provoke either agreement or argument, depending on whom you share it with. I tend to camp with the “agreement” team, although I would perhaps amend his statement to assert that photography can have everything…or nothing to do with the camera. Taking a picture without some kind of gear is impossible, and every camera, good or bad, can produce some kind of picture. But, beyond that, the possibilities are wide open, and nothing is guaranteed.
We have all been assisted by a piece of equipment that helped us generate the image we had in mind, but first we had to have the vision. A camera is, first and foremost, a recording instrument, like a microphone. It does, to use a hideously overused term, capture something, but like a microphone, it can preserve either cacophony and rhapsody. Another famous photographer made this issue even more poetic by stating that a picture is made either in front of or in back of the camera. Those of you who have traveled through these pages with us over the years know that this sentiment is one of my guiding principles. As I frequently say, masterpieces have been taken with five-dollar disposables, while unspeakable horrors have been committed with Leicas. And vice versa.
We live in a progressive consumer culture, an endless cycle of buy-and-buy-again. We are trained to desire the Next Big Thing. Something shinier, sexier, newer. As a matter of fact, newness alone is often enough to part many fools with their wallets because they are led to believe that the best camera is the one they don’t yet own. If you know someone like this, scribble a deed to the Brooklyn Bridge on a cocktail napkin and get them to sign it immediately. In the meantime, let me assert that working a little longer with a slightly “outdated” camera that you understand and can bend to your will is preferable to jumping to one that is so difficult to master that it actively conspires against your success. I’m not talking about taking the logical upward step to the next level of gear that you’ve naturally evolved to; I’m talking about feverishly convincing yourself that you will be a better photographer once you’ve bought X or Y camera. Remember Mr. Gentry’s truth: it has nothing to do with the camera. Equipment is not magic. You will not win the Grand Prix because you bought a Ferrari.
Establishing the best possible bond between yourself and your machine of choice makes a difference in your work, because you are directing that work, which means knowing what the machine can deliver. If you don’t have that relationship with your camera at present, work until you get it. If you can’t master the device you currently own, you’ll be even further behind the curve with a camera you have to catch up with. Don’t expect to create art that’s alive by relying on an inanimate object to do the heavy lifting. When we refer to the “normal eye” in the official name of this blog, we’re talking about developing a way to see, to get back in touch with your vision, to “normalize” it. That means taking responsibility for your work, not delegating it to the gear. Forget everything else about photography, but remember that your camera can either be an ally….or a conspirator.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
LIKE MANY, I WOULD HAVE A HARD TIME pinpointing the first photograph I shot after formally going into the Great Hibernation of 2020. The designated do-or-die date for heading ourselves into the bunker was fairly elastic, person-to-person, with some of us taking cover early in the spring, while others were forced to stay in-pattern for longer. I can determine, from the very type of pictures I took in this strange year, which were shot After The Before Times, but it would be mere guesswork to say that this image or the other was the first “confinement” photo per se.
But I can detect a change in the subject matter and viewpoint of those first days. I will always recall the realization that, as my world proceeded to shrink, my photography would become more introspective. This meant that my reaction to the sudden flood of spare time was, at least on good days, to luxuriate in the freedom it gave me; the leisure to select, to plan, to choose in the process of making pictures. As a consequence, in reviewing the year’s photographic yield, I find myself not so much choosing “favorites” or “bests” from the thousands of snaps I took in quarantine, but instead looking for the truest depictions of where my head was, and still is. This is all to say that I resisted getting in a year-to-year contest of some sort with myself over technique or skill and tried to concentrate on emotional accuracy.
This picture is not technically distinctive by any measure, nor is it particularly original, but it is true to where I was when I made it. In what could be called The Year Of Uphill Walking, it projects that struggle to just keep climbing, across rocky, barren terrain, in anxious anticipation of what may lie over the next horizon, and without the blandishment or warmth of color. No destination is sure, or even promised; no arrival time is predicted; only the journey itself exists. If I had to deliberately try to show what 2020 felt like, I couldn’t have found a more appropriate visual metaphor than this picture. This is not me being a superb planner of shots. This is me, months after the fact, marveling that some measure of this madness somehow organically made it into my camera. I never went out formally looking for a way to give expression for my feelings; I merely let the process happen through me, to be a barometer of what I thought it important to see and record.
Maybe that’s the way I should always make pictures. Sometimes I think I understand my process and other times I feel like it’s leading me around by the nose. I hope to re-discover genuine hope in 2021, but, if I…we, have to settle for less, I pray that I’ll at least find a way to tell stories about how that felt. And I hope I’ll remember how to put one foot in front of the other.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I’M A BIG FAN OF THE PRACTICE of distancing yourself from photographs that didn’t immediately connect with you. Some of our images just don’t register with us at first glance, however, in many cases, they can be approached with a fresh eye if you just shove them in a shoebox (digitally speaking) for a time, giving them a second hearing somewhere down the road.
Of course, once you get down that road, you may conclude that your first impression was correct, and that something in the picture was off, or just ineffective. But then there are the late-arriving miracles, the photographs that had to wait until your mind was right to reveal their best truths, eliciting some reaction like “that’s not so bad, after all.” In other words, the ones you’re now glad you didn’t delete in a fit of initial disappointment. The late bloomers.
Often I find that a simple cropping reveals that there really was a decent picture in there all the time, but that it was being eclipsed by all the extra dead space, props or distractions that were also captured in the moment. In such cases, the entire apple wasn’t rotten; it merely needed a few brown spots to be pared away. The trick is to think of cropping not as an admission of failure but as an opportunity.
Few of us have the chops to perfectly frame a great story in an instant. There are a few among us with that talent, and they are the ones enshrined in museums and textbooks. The rest of us can often capture a great picture within a larger picture, however, and in eliminating the fluff and filler we actually redeem it instead of writing it off as defective. One old-school photo editor was famous for telling his shooters to “crop ’til it hurts”, revealing his own belief that, if you kept wielding the scissors without mercy, good pictures would often be freed from the junk that surrounded them. Taking an understandable amount of ownership in our own work, we can often become overly attached to the first version of a project. We protect it like a young mother who cries the first time her baby gets his hair cut. But while great pictures are often “taken” (see earlier remark about the people in museums), many more are revealed by merely peeling away a few dead leaves.
The candid seen here retains less than 50% of the content that surrounded it, which originally included additional people and most of the interior of a good-sized cafe. Given the chance to add all that other clutter back in, I would issue a hard “no” and be grateful for having hacked at the task until I found the real essence of the picture. You have no doubt experienced the same Christmas-morning unwrapping thrill in your own pix. We need to remember that what comes out of the camera is often just the first draft of history, and that helping the best part of it be amplified is not cheating, or “making the best of a bad situation” but staging, directing our dramas for the audience’s best experience.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
2020’s GREAT HIBERNATION HAS FORCED US to add many arbitrary items to our “to do” lists, if for no other reason than to consume the mountains of newly available time with which we find ourselves encumbered. We know that a certain number of our new daily tasks are what bureaucrats call “make-work” projects, but the therapeutic value of adding real energy to even “fake” goals is indisputable. And for photographers, those projects can involve a return to things we used to do but came to consider ourselves as “done with.”
For me, that’s meant a revisitation of film, not so much for any superior aspect it might have over digital shooting, but as a refresher in the use of habits I’ve held longest as a photographer. First; it’s true that, given the technical advances and conveniences introduced over the years, there is nothing left in analog that I can’t do almost unilaterally better and faster in digital. Nothing. However, from a planning or sensibility viewpoint, there certainly are mindsets that analog photography confers upon your process. As a consequence, I try to balance the discipline of working with film with the ease of shooting in digital…to think A and shoot D, if you like.
In film, you were working with a finite work medium. Your camera could only take 24 or 36 images at a time without being hungry for more “fuel”. You paid for each new dose of that fuel, and then you paid again to have it processed, in order to see if you succeeded or failed. Worse, there were no “do-overs” built into the system, which meant that you paid real money even for your mistakes. This automatically slowed down your picture-taking process and taught you the habit of planning purposely for a set outcome. Anyone who is too young to have ever shot film has no direct experience with the extra steps in metering, measuring and composing that accompanied every shot. Everything took four moves or more. Additional lighting was cumbersome and often unreliable. Worse, some kinds of film were more unforgiving of mistakes than others, and they usually came at a premium price. And then there’s the risk of not even being able to get the camera to give you what you want. The analog frame seen here, for example, took me five full minutes to shoot, and I can still find about a dozen things wrong with it. But I can inform my digital work with the thought process it took me to make this imperfect analog image.
So far, I’m doing a great job of unselling everyone on analog for all time. But in an age in which there was no immediate results for your shots, the exercise of planning and waiting before shooting had a payoff. You seldom shot anything you didn’t care about. You were slower, more deliberate about shoots, and tended to pre-plan them, to engineer all the failure out of a picture well before you took it. You edited yourself in advance, because it cost too damned much to, as in the digital era, just crank off thirty variations of every subject and hope one of them worked out. Am I asking anyone to go out and buy a roll of film and load it into Grandpa’s Hasselblad? Not at all, and that’s not even the point. It’s far more important to shoot with analog’s special brand of intentionality, even within the comfy confines of digital. As I said earlier, think A and shoot D. Maybe an exercise in which you shoot your next, say, thirty-six images on 100% manual settings, with no re-takes on any of them and no allowing yourself to go beyond that arbitrary number of frames, might be valuable. Or not. We no longer need to put up with much of the drudgery of film, but we might be well served to observe some of the disciplines it imposed on our work.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
STREET PHOTOGRAPHY IS OCCASIONALLY DISPARAGED as some kind of intrusion, the visual equivalent of picking someone’s pocket or peeping through their bedroom window. And while some shooters certainly invade, even steal, privacy from people, there are many more gentler practitioners, artists compelled by curiosity rather than predation. I think the difference between these two approaches shows in the work. At least I hope it does.
The photographic street scene is greatly altered in this Year Of The Great Hibernation. Making pictures of people is severely hampered when there are, literally, fewer full faces in view. Our choice to purposely avoid personal contact cuts that crop down yet again. And without faces, the street is only, well, the street. Faces provide photographers with that divine mix of solved and unsolved mystery. It is, after all, our inability to absolutely plumb the inner thoughts of others with our puny cameras that make our little acts of emotional eavesdropping so addictive.
In recent months, I have been giving myself a refresher course on what it is about street work that “works” for me. I keep coming back to images very similar to the one you see here, the instinctual capture of a moment on a pier in Ventura, California some three years ago. Something about the exchange between the woman and the two males continues to fascinate me. Maybe it’s because the woman, whose face is the only one of the three in clear view, is in such a position of dominance. She clearly seems to be in charge of whether the conversation continues, and on whose terms. She looks, at once, impatient, engaged, weary, cold, contemptuous, even maternal. I can’t nail her down, and that’s intriguing. The males are almost certainly boys, or are at least servile in the way that only boys can be in the presence of an adult woman. Either way, their energy is greatly diminished in comparison to hers. The picture does, then, what street work does best…at least for me, in that it starts conversation, but cannot end it.
Of course, some street photography is not “about” anything but itself, that is, a random momentary arrangement of props and shapes. And it would be a mistake to label such images as any less or more “meaningful” just because no clear intent is implied in them. A sunset is, for some, symbolic of many things, but for others, it’s just a picture of a sunset. As to whether it’s somehow wrong to spy on the feelings or interactions of passersby with the intent of trapping them inside a box, I’ll leave that to the philosophers. Me, I’m thinking about the grand parade of lives passing before me, which I regard as the grandest feast since the invention of Hot Pockets…
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE FIRST “COMMANDMENTS” that were once sacrosanct to newbie photographers was the concept of sharpness. We were taught to worship the resolution quotients of all lenses and to choose them based on arcane charts and bench tests that professed to certify perfection. Such data made us look askance at the glass we currently owned and to slobber over the newer, crisper glass that shone forth from the catalogues (or websites). Many of us broke the bank in this pursuit, abandoning perfectly fine lenses that didn’t live up to someone else’s holy absolute, chasing the little red wagon of sharpness right down the street to bankruptcy court.
But as it turns out, sharpness is only a must for some kinds of photographs, and (listen closely), only if we say so. Museums around the world are bursting with life-changing images that fall far below that arbitrary high water mark for resolution set by God-knows-what-secret-society, and, if you examine the whole range of images you personally regard as your “keepers” there will be compelling pictures within that stack that don’t pass the sharpness fantasy…..and yet work, and make their arguments powerfully and elegantly. Leaning too hard on any one commandment in photography, whether it be sharpness or exposure or composition, leads you away from spontaneity and into stultification. Work that has only to meet some arbitrary technical standard to be qualified as art can, of course, never aspire to be art at all.
The best path to satisfying photographs is to trust yourself in the moment, to hear the voice that says that it’s time to snap the shutter and go for broke, damn the results and the critics. The shot you see here is, yes, technically “imperfect”, as it was shot a bit slow for the speedy little bird’s sudden departure. My original plan was to cook up something poetic as he placidly sat on a perch, obligingly posing for my convenience. But he is a bird, and has a bird’s priorities and doesn’t give a ripe damn about mine, and so off he went. Now, I could waste a lot of space here rationalizing the whole result and saying that, of course, I planned it all along, only I didn’t. Like some of my other favorites pictures, it contains a generous kiss of good luck from the camera gods, and that’s okay. I could fret over the fact that if I’d had a faster, sharper lens, the bird’s body would be frozen in perfect register, but I’m not going to. I love it when a plan works out, but I also love it when something just happens.
Today’s emerging photographers have a much more relaxed attitude toward “rules” than we older shooters, and that, on balance, is a welcome change. It explains the entire “low-fi” and lomography movements which value shooting from the hip and the heart with minimal forethought, something that consciously chooses emotional verity over technical imperfection. And why not? What harm to bring more kinds of voices into the conversation? As I get older, I am more grateful for the choices that are negotiable, more likely to be labeled as “sometimes try” rather than “never do”. For a guy who can’t even manage to eat two consecutive hot dogs with the exact same condiments, I find that it’s a better way to, er, fly….
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CERTAINLY, PHOTOGRAPHY IS PARTLY ABOUT LIGHT, AND EQUIPMENT, AND TECHNICAL MASTERY. However, after all those means are applied, the only determinant of the ends of all our energies comes from human choices. Arguments within the mind of the photographer about what “belongs” in a picture. How to convince the viewer that it belongs. How to apply all the means to make that information compelling, or universal.
It’s knowing what to say “yes” to, but, just as crucially, it’s about being able to say no to every other option, and being prepared to live with your decision. Of course, deciding what to put in an image is not, literally, a matter of life and death, as a choice of career, mate, or philosophy might be, but it is a very visual demonstration of what choice entails. Because, when you choose something, in a picture or in a life path, you automatically unchoose everything else. There is no way, in art in life in general, to have it all.
But better voices, voices far wiser than mine, have already spoken brilliantly of this process. One, in particular, has been considered by many to be the final word on the subject, so today it serves as my own picture’s caption:
By MICHAEL PERKINS
UNLIKELY JUXTAPOSITIONS are the very essence of photography. We use the camera to extract the mood from one time of day and paste it over the atmosphere of another. We put light in places where once was only darkness. We take the colors of joy and superimpose them over somber scenes. We shove the past up against the present and force the two of them to become BBFs. And so, as picture makers, we should be comfortable when elements that seem to have nothing in common co-exist comfortably within a single image.
That said, this picture, which pretty much fell into my lap last year, feels very much like the kind of improvisation that informs the re-imagining of practically every rite and routine right now, rather than a “fun” idea from 2019. That is, in the present state of affairs, observers might understandably react to, say, a wedding rehearsal inside a bookstore with a big, “um, sure, why the hell not?” In this way, the great hibernation has made more of us think like, well, photographers.
Here’s why: shoot enough photos and you will inevitably become more limber in your idea of what fits or doesn’t fit within a single frame. Quite simply, the randomness of life will force you to look at seemingly exclusive realities and admit that, yes, they actually do justify each other in your final composition.
And just as so many non-shooters have learned, in plague times, to accommodate plans “B”, “C”, “D”, photographers must stay in the game, stay loose, and conclude that, yes, all things considered, holding a wedding in a bookstore is a pretty dope idea.
THE UNIQUE BLEND OF TECHNICAL AND MENTAL PROCESSES that combines to form the phenomenon of photography is as real, and as elusive, as smoke. Real, because it results in a physical transfer of information from eye to document. Elusive, because, like smoke, photographs waft and curl in different contours with each and every image.
The making of a photograph is forever thrilling because it is an attempt to make something purely mental cohere into a tangible object. It’s a tantalizing dream that ends in a frustrating compromise, something pure that often enters the real world hobbled by impurities. And yet it’s the flawed part of this process that makes it irresistible.
If the Magic Picture Box had actually been able to reproduce reality, as many feared at its introduction, it would have long since lost its allure, and would offer no more romance than a seismograph or any other mere recording instrument. But something different happened instead.
Instead of the camera being reliable as a mirror of “the truth”, the very imperfectIon of its nature made it a messenger for “my truth”….a machine that must bend to the whims of its user. That’s why even the best camera is only as good as the eye behind it. It’s not that “the camera can’t lie”, but that it can neither lie nor tell the truth without human intention steering it.
I offer these scribblings as an answer to the oft-asked question, “why do you love it so much?”, not really to convert the unconvinced as to remind the devoted; because even people who make pictures constantly can occasionally forget what a miracle we help oversee.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE MAY BE LIMIT to what the human mind will devise In the way of diversion during times of forced solitude, such as our current Great Hibernation, but thankfully I haven’t yet bumped my nose up against that particular ceiling. And while photogs are taught to make pictures out of damn near anything, you begin, under quarantine, to rethink even that minimalistic criterion. The term “make-work” springs to mind. That, along with “desperate.”
But as long as I’m making pictures of something/anything, I can feel less guilty about not being able to, for example, master sourdough bread baking. Subject-wise, I’ve been trying, lately, to crank out something that is vaguely environmental in aspect, since our failure to serve or even consider nature seems to be at the root of so many of our current woes. Sooo….time for that “make-work” ethic to kick in.
The project began as a simple capture of a recent Supermoon, which is fairly easy with my “bird camera”, a Nikon Coolpix 900, a hybrid superzoom bought to help stalk all things winged but also handy for handhelds of heavenly bodies.
My lunar capture took mere seconds, but it was long enough to conjure a memory of the classic 1903 George Melies film A Trip To The Moon, one of the very first special effects movies. The prehistoric flicker contains the iconic image of the dismayed face of the “man in the moon”, seconds after an Earth spaceship lands squarely in his eye, and, moonsnap in hand, I commenced working on my own version.
I wondered what a concerned, even sad version of that face would look like, as if the moon were desperately entreating us all to get our act together. I finally decided to re-use a closeup of one of my wife’s antique dolls, which had the right balance of sentiment and creepiness, and blended the two pieces on a phone app appropriately named Fused.
And so, an act of improvised lunacy, along with another slow night, goes into the record books. Turns out that even quarantine can yield to the images inside your skull. You no doubt have similar visions swimming around inside your brain pan at this point, and now is the perfect moment to summon them forth.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE PICTURE YOU SEE HERE is not the type of photo I typically do a lot. And that’s odd, because it seems, in some way a prime example of what we all seek when we go out to photograph. Use your own term for it…slice of life, the common man, street photography..the list of names is long, but the idea is the same: the practice of recording something of life, from life, that reminds us of our universal humanity in some small way.
Maybe that word small is the key to it. In normal times (remember those?) we hardly blink at the millions of wee moments that aggregate to the total of our sense of “normalcy”. And if we don’t notice these millions of mini-moments ourselves, we trust artists to notice them for us, to amplify the ordinary into the marvelous. But the artist’s eye can fail as well, can become blind to minutia, aiming for bigger game to portray or preserve. The mega-calamities; the earthquakes; or, in the current world context, the boarded-up shops and empty streets. Everyone wants to take The Big Picture that explains it all, and it’s easy to forget that a large tapestry of tiny testimonies, mini-moments, can be woven into a Big Picture as well.
Even in these soul-testing times, the scene shown here is hardly front page news; Couple Walks Dog. And yet, its very ordinariness (may not be a word, look it up, campers) can be reassuring in a time when routine has been ripped to rags and not much can be taken for granted. In such a world, a child’s laugh, a sunlit hollow, a scene that appears to be part of An Uninterrupted Life, can become precious. Hardly forty-eight hours has passed since I shot this picture, and yet, in that short span of time, it has gone from a casual snap to something I hold to be precious. Certainly not for any innate skill in its execution or groundbreakingly fresh approach, but, again, for the appearance that, despite everything, some things will go on, and that we can well afford, in this superabundance of spare time, to slow down and savor them.
One of the wondrous things that was lost in the transition from analog to digital photography was the deliberateness, the necessary caution and calculation that used to go into the making of every shot. Mistakes were costly and gratification was delayed, and our slower, more reflective method reflected that. Maybe, during this forced time-out, the best thing we can do for our photographer’s eye is to allow it to notice more of everything, to slow our roll and harvest the million little fireflies that have always been swirling about our unseeing gaze.
(FIAT LUX, Michael Perkins’ newest collection of images, is now available from NormalEye Books.)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHIC STYLE IS REFLECTIVE of the human aging process. You often make pictures differently in different phases of your life. Many of my favorite shooters have, over their careers, evolved on two parallel tracks, both toward simplicity. That is to say that their picture-taking process, i.e., equipment and gear, becomes more streamlined as they age, even as their approach to composition becomes simpler. In every way possible, the best photographers tend to learn, over time, how to do more and more with less and less.
Going into battle with a single camera that’ll do 98% of what you need in any situation is highly desirable, but it takes time to learn how to do that, to resist the temptation to carry every gizmo under heaven on your shoulder at once. But the struggle is worth it; knowing every single feature and quirk of a camera that’s ergonomically solid and functionally streamlined allows you to work fast and instinctively. As for composition, I found that, at least for me, I had to either learn to simplify or just give up on things like landscape work, where everything I shot was crammed with clouds, trees, trickling streams, flocks of birds, and, who knows, the Barnum & Bailey circus. I was making picture after picture where, if the human eye was asking, “where do I look?” my answer was likely to be, “It’s a smorgasbord! Pick anything!” The truth was that I had to go simpler as I aged if I was ever to be effective at all in conveying visual ideas.
Twenty years ago, this image would have taken up twice the area you see here, because, even today, its master frame included, along with the barn and stable, a side building, some empty blue sky, and a few small piles of farm implements….enough distractive information for five pictures. Zeroing out all the color and cropping to keep the entire picture to a basic series of rectangles and triangles (plus their multiplied shadows) turned out much better; all I had to do was develop the courage to cut, decisively, in search of a less cluttered picture. I only select this example because it’s a very clear illustration of the process that I now go through for composing nearly every shot, in that I try to pre-visualize how little information I need to convey my concept. Yes, how little.
This is an ongoing struggle for any photographer, because it’s easy and alluring to do more of everything…more stuff to carry, more stuff to cram in the frame, more things to draw energy away from your primary vision. I am nowhere near where I need to be in this journey, but I can track a little progress, and, amidst all the distractions of, well, living, that’s at least something.
(FIAT LUX, Michael Perkins’ latest collection of images, is now available from NormalEye Books.)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU’VE LIKELY EXPERIENCED IT: I call it shutter lock, the photographer’s equivalent of writer’s block. You have the subject. You have opportunity. And you certainly have motive. But the picture won’t come.
More specifically, the right picture won’t come. You’ve chosen the wrong angle. The wrong aspect. It’s lost in a sea of busy. Or it’s just…well, hiding. Your perfect shot has now become some frustrating game of Where’s Waldo? Should you move on? Reconsider? Or in Oz’ words, simply “go away and come back tomorrow”?
And then you move a few inches. You walk around your quarry and something else about it begins to speak, first in a whisper, and then, in a clear, loud voice that says, “of course”. And you make the picture.
My recent and most stubborn case of shutter lock has been on me since the start of our Great Hibernation, a time when photographers have flooded social media with ideas for “projects”. Essays. Statements that will sum up What We’re All Going Through. And more than a few challenges to find all that Supreme Truth in a self-portrait. How is this affecting you? How has it reshaped your features, the part of your soul that seeps though haunted eyes or pursed lips? I was fascinated by that idea, of course, and why not? We all love to explore ourselves, to regard ourselves as our own True North. But I wasn’t capturing it, or at least enough of it. I was staring at a landscape that I couldn’t turn into a picture.
And then I stopped looking inward. Selfies can certainly reveal our inner dialogues, but all my own face was registering was a kind of unreadable…numbness. And so I moved about thirty inches, and she was there.
Marian is always there at my most instructive moments of clarity. She hacks through my busy clutter and lets enough air into my brain to allow me to see sense, and regain my bearings. The most wonderful thing about it is, she often doesn’t know she’s doing it. There is was, on her face, the look I was seeking, and missing, on my own. A mix of grim resolution, hope, helplessness, exhaustion. Not a look of absolute despair….more like a dead serious attempt to re-focus, to keep swimming against the tide. Suddenly her face was not only a better expression of my own journey but everyone’s. It felt universal, beyond language. In short, it looked like a photograph.
And now it is one. I took it with the crudest camera I have, under the worst conditions possible. And then I tortured it even more in an app to make it appear antique enough to feel relevant to all crises, all dark nights of the soul. It’s technically a wreck, and yet I’m proud of it. Proud of myself for getting outside myself in order to see it. Proud of it as a possession. And proud to allow my partner to be The Interpreter.
FIAT LUX, Michael Perkins’ newest collection of images, is now available through NormalEye Books.