By MICHAEL PERKINS
“I’M NOT A GREAT ONE FOR CHATTING PEOPLE UP, because it’s phony”, legendary photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones told an interviewer toward the end of his life. Answering standard questions about his approach to creating some of the most memorable portraits of both the haves and have-nots during the second half of the twentieth century, he added, “I don’t want people to feel at ease. You want a bit of edge. There are quite long, agonized silences. I love it. Something strange might happen. I mean, taking photographs is a very nasty thing to do. It’s very cruel….”
Such a remark was de rigeur for Armstrong-Jones, who worked hard over a lifetime to create the impression that he didn’t really work that hard at all, that his photographs were, in his words, “run of the mill”, although anyone looking over the body of work published under his British title, Lord Snowdon, would roundly disagree. His clients ranged from the royal family, including his first wife, Princess Margaret (sister of Queen Elizabeth), as well as the family’s next generation of nobles, highlighted by his celebrated portrayals of Diana, Princess of Wales. There were also scores of portraits of a vast range of other subjects from ditch-diggers to dowagers, a list that boasted Princess Grace of Monaco, David Bowie, Laurence Olivier, Elizabeth Taylor, Maggie Smith and J.R.R. Tolkien. Other times his lens would be trained on documentary subjects like natural disasters or the plight of mental patients. In Snowdon’s personally curated origin story, he seems to have backed into photography after flunking out of Cambridge, where he had originally studied to be an architect. Even the acquisition of his first camera, a gift from his sister to help pass the time during his recovery from a bout of polio, seems to have been an afterthought. Beginning as an assistant for the reigning British court photographer, he first distinguished himself with images of the brighter lights of the British stage, truly launching his career with an official 1957 tour portrait of Elizabeth and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh. Three years later, he married Margaret in Westminster Abbey in a ceremony that made history on two fronts, being the first such ritual to be televised as well as the first union between a royal and a commoner (from which union came Armstrong-Jones’ induction into the House of Lords). The marriage was most graciously described as “tempestuous”, and ground to a halt eighteen years later, hobbled by Margaret’s legendary partying and Snowdon’s equally celebrated eye for the ladies.
Perversely, Snowdon often disdained the very photographs that earned him his living, saying they were “all right for pinning up” but not worthy of being framed or treasured. Once, when asked if he had a favorite image, he quipped “yes….I haven’t taken it yet.”
That, of course, doesn’t mean that Snowdon ever gave any public clues as to how such a masterpiece might evolve, since he was remarkably closed-mouthed about technique, whenever he wasn’t actively denying that he had any. Proud of the fact that he didn’t prep or engage his subjects in conversation to relax them, he claimed he never even asked them to smile, since that was “a false facial expression”.
His professional credits ran the gamut from the London Sunday Times magazine (where he worked as photo editor) to commissions for Vanity Fair, The Daily Telegraph, and over thirty years with Vogue, with a notable retrospective of his work being mounted at Washington’s National Portrait Gallery in 2000. Interestingly, his favorite projects were not photographs at all, but the architectural designs he created for the London Zoo and various mechanical inventions, including a type of electric wheelchair which he patented. He consistently deflected probing questions about the style and philosophy behind his pictures, cutting off interviews with glib gibes that made it seem as if the images just jumped out of the camera by their own power. Perhaps, he seemed to be proposing, it had all been a happy accident.
Perhaps it’s just as well. Perhaps the pictures are best suited to speak for themselves. Perhaps trying to explain how the magic works makes the magic sort of…not work. “I’m very much against photographs being treated with reverence and signed and sold as works of art”, he once told a writer. “They should be seen in a magazine or book and then be used to wrap up fish and chucked away.”
I AM STILL IN PAIN, several days after the most aggressive photographic housecleaning I’ve endured in years, the ruthless removal of years of deadwood from a photo-sharing site on which I’ve parked way, way too many wayward pictures. This was, finally, the week to toss away the old moose head in the attic, the day to tearfully admit that you no longer fit into your varsity jersey. Hail and farewell, parting is such sweet sorrow. Goodbye and good riddance.
OVERHEARD DURING MY EDITING/DELETING PROCESS
Oh, My Gawd…
What even is that?
Well, that certainly didn’t work…..
Nothing wrong with this one…..except the lighting, aperture, and composition…
Seriously, what the hell is that?
Lots of this concentrated cringing over pix of yesteryear speaks to my old acronym SLAGIATT, or Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time, the simple truth that what you believe is profound at the time of the shutter click will strike you as reeking fish wrap several miles down the pike. We do outgrow, update, and disown old ideas, hopefully replacing them with better ones.
To take it a bit further, if a significant number of your old images don’t make you want to reach for the bilge bucket, one of two things is true. (1) You are already God’s messenger, the one true Messiah of photography (unlikely), or (2) you are so mired in habit and false comfort that the way you shoot is the way you always shot and the way you will always shoot. Given those choices, it may be preferable to regard at least some of one’s work the way Jack Nicholson’s Joker riffed through Vicki Vale’s portfolio, i.e, “crap…..crap….crap…” It hurts, but it’s healthy.
Every binge must have a purge, and the gluttonous output of the digital age guarantees one sure truth: they can’t all be gems. I hate having to disown my kids as much as the next shooter, but part of learning is learning to fail, admitting that at least some of those kids will never Get Into A Good School, Settle Down With Someone Nice, and Start Giving Us Some Grandchildren. If for no other reason than to help us know excellence when we see it, we need to be able to fearlessly label all the loves we have lost.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I HAVE LONG SINCE ABANDONED THE TASK OF CALCULATING HOW MANY DIGITAL IMAGES ARE CREATED every second of every day. The numbers are so huge as to be meaningless by this time, as the post-film revolution has removed most of the barriers that once kept people from (a) taking acceptable images or (b) doing so quickly. The global glut of photographs can never again be held in check by the higher failure rate, longer turnaround time, or technical intimidation of film.
Now we have to figure out if that’s always a good thing.
Back in the 1800’s. Photography was 95% technical sweat and 5% artistry. Two-minute exposures, primitive lenses and chancey processing techniques made image-making a chore, a task only suited to the dedicated tinkerer. The creation of cheap, reliable cameras around the turn of the 20th century tilted the sweat/artistry ratio a lot closer to, say, 60/40, amping up the number of users by millions, but still making it pretty easy to muck up a shot and rack up a ton of cost.
You know the rest. Making basic photographs is now basically instantaneous, making for shorter and shorter prep times before clicking the shutter. After all, the camera is good enough to compensate for most of our errors, and, more importantly, able to replicate professional results for people who are not professionals in any sense of the word. That translates to billions of pictures taken very, very quickly, with none of the stop-and-think deliberation that was baked into the film era.
We took longer to make a picture back in the day because we were hemmed in by the mechanics of the process. But, in that forced slowing, we automatically paid more active attention to the planning of a greater proportion of our shots. Of course, even in the old days, we cranked out millions of lousy pictures, but, if we were intent on making great ones, the process required us to slow down and think. We didn’t take 300 pictures over a weekend, 150 of them completely dispensable, nor did we record thirty “takes” of Junior blowing out his birthday candles. Worse, the age’s compulsive urge to share, rather than to edit, has also contributed to the flood tide of photo-litter that is our present reality.
If we are to regard photography as an art, then we have to judge it by more than just its convenience or speed. Both are great perks but both can actually erode the deliberation process needed to make something great. There are no short cuts to elegance or eloquence. Slow yourself up. Reject some ideas, and keep others to execute and refine. Learn to tell yourself “no”.
There is an old joke about an airpline pilot getting on the intercom and telling the passengers that he’s “hopelessly lost, but making great time”. Let’s not make pictures like that.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS, LIKE ALL OTHER UPRIGHT BIPEDS, LOVE PRAISE. None of us are so jaded that we don’t like to get a gold star for an image or an idea; after all, that’s why we do this. However, as borne out by the simplest Google research, there is one sentence, which, although intended as a compliment, will send the average photographer into a seething simmer. You’ve heard it. Maybe you’ve even said it.
Repeat it with me:
Gee, your pictures are so good. You must have a really great camera.
Sadly, this sentence is intended as a thumbs-up, a certification that “ya done good”. However, it unfortunately lands on the ear sounding like, “Lucky you. Despite your basic, hapless ineptitude, the magical machine in your fist created art that was so wonderful, not even a clod like you could prevent it from happening.Congrats!”
When I am told that my pictures are good because I have “a really good camera”, part of me wants to extend the idea of tools=talent to other fields of endeavor, as in:
“Thanks. I can hardly wait to buy a $3,000 oven so I can become a master chef.”
“Thanks, I’m eager to get some $200 brushes so I can paint a masterpiece.”
“Thanks. I’m planning to tie a blanket around my neck and recite ‘I’m Batman’ several thousand times so I can be a crimefighter….”
Photography isn’t about tools. It’s about patience, perseverance, vision, flexibility, humility, objectivity, subjectivity, and, most importantly, putting in more hours than the next guy. It’s about exercising your eye as you would any muscle that you’ve like to tone and strengthen. It’s about sitting 24 hours in a duck blind, hanging by your heels from a helicopter, avoiding incoming gunfire, charming grumpy children, and learning to hate things in your own work that, just yesterday, you believed was your “A” stuff.
If equipment were all, then everyone with a Steinway would be Glenn Gould and everyone with a Les Paul Gibson would be, well, Les Paul. But we know that there is no success guarantee that comes with a purchase warranty. Many cameras are great, but they won’t wake you up at 4am to flush out a green-tailed towhee or climb a mountain to help you snag a breathtaking sunrise. Tools are not talent. And the sooner we learn that, the less we’ll start thinking our work will start to shine with the next new shiny thing we buy, and teach ourselves to make better pictures with what we own and shoot right here, right now.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF YOU REGULARLY POST IMAGES TO PHOTO SHARING SITES, you will no doubt have come upon groups or albums labeled S.O.O.C., or Straight Out Of The Camera, pictures that purport to have transitioned seamlessly from shutter click to social post without being further touched by human hands. The fact that such a designation even exists says something about how we see the creative process, or what we deem as “pure” about it.
The raw math of photography dictates that only a micro-percentage of your total work will actually come fully formed from your camera, emerging, as Athena did, intact from the forehead of Zeus. Rather, the majority of what we shoot is re-shot, re-thought, shaped, edited, and re-combined before we put a gold frame around it, which only makes sense. Photography is a process, not just a recording product. We grow into a better understanding of our best shots no less than our worst ones. That means that clinging to “straight out of the camera” as some kind of badge of excellence or ideal is counter-intuitive to the idea of photography as an organic art.
More simply, any so-called “perfect” pictures we create in the moment are a mixture of luck as well as talent, of chance as well as design. To slap a collective S.O.O.C. label on all such fortunate convergences of cosmic fortune is to think of that “flawlessness” as an end unto itself. Does the fact that you didn’t further mold an image after shooting it render it better, more authentic somehow, than one which was later manipulated or massaged? What gets the gold star, the best complete realization of a picture, regardless of the number of intermediate steps, or the bragging rights associated with blind luck? Case in point: in the above image, I did, indeed, get nearly everything I wanted out of the picture, but it was also the 15th frame I shot of the subject before I was even partly satisfied, so how “straight out” is that??
And what of the photographs that are less than “perfect” (according to whom?) from a technical standpoint? Can’t an underexposed or ill-focused shot contain real impact? Aren’t there a number of “balanced” exposures that are also as dull as dishwater? Moreover, can’t a shot be improved in its power after being re-interpreted in processing? The straight-out-of-the-camera designation is either meaningless, or sends completely the wrong message. Creativity seldom moves in a straight line, and almost never comes fully realized in its first form. Photography’s aim should never be to aim for an easy lay-up from mid-court, and labels that suggest that lucky is the same as eloquent do the art a disservice.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
“(the book is) flawed by meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposure, drunken horizons, and general sloppiness, (showing) a contempt for quality and technique…” –Popular Photography, in its 1958 review of The Americans
THOSE WORDS OF DISDAIN, designed to consign its subject to the ash heap of history, are now forever attached to the photographic work that, instead of vanishing in disgrace, almost single-handedly re-invented the way the world saw itself through the eye of a camera. For to thumb through Robert Frank’s 1958 collection of road images, The Americans, is to have one’s sense of what is visually important transformed. Forever.
In the mid-1950’s, mass-market photojournalist magazines from Life to Look regularly ran “essays” of images that were arranged and edited to illustrate story text, resulting in features that told readers what to see, which sequence to see it in, and what conclusions to draw from the experience. Editors assiduously guided contract photographers in what shots were required for such assignments, and they had final say on how those pictures were to be presented. Robert Frank, born in 1924 in Switzerland, had, by mid-century, already toiled in these formal gardens at mags that included Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, and was ready for something else, a something else where instinct took preference over niceties of technique that dominated even fine-art photography.
Making off for months alone in a 1950 Ford and armed only with a 35mm Leica and a modest Guggenheim grant, Frank drove across much of the United States shooting whenever and wherever the spirit moved him. He worked quickly, intrusively, and without regard for the ettiquette of formal photography, showing people, places, and entire sub-cultures that much of the country had either marginalized or forgotten. He wasn’t polite about it. He didn’t ask people to say cheese. He shot through the windshield, directly into streetlights. He didn’t worry about level horizons, under-or-over exposure, the limits of light, or even focal sharpness, so much as he obsessed about capturing crucial moments, unguarded seconds in which beauty, ugliness, importance and banality all collided in a single second. Not even the saintly photojournalists of the New Deal, with their grim portraits of Dust Bowl refugees, had ever captured anything this immediate, this raw.
Frank escaped a baker’s dozen of angry confrontations with his reluctant subjects, even spending a few hours in local jails as he clicked his way across the country. The terms of engagement were not friendly. If America at large didn’t want to see his stories, his targets were equally reluctant to be bugs under Frank’s microscope. When it was all finished, the book found a home with the outlaw publishers at Grove Press, the scrappy upstart that had first published many of the emerging poets of the Beat movement. The traditional photographic world reacted either with a dismissive yawn or a snarling sneer. This wasn’t photography: this was some kind of amateurish assault on form and decency. Sales-wise, The Americans sank like a stone.
Around the edges of the photo colony, however, were fierce apostles of what Frank had seen, along with a slowly growing recognition that he had made a new kind of art emerge from the wreckage of a rapidly vanishing formalism. One of the earliest converts was the King of the Beats Himself, no less than Jack Kerouac, who, in the book’s introduction said Frank had “sucked a sad poem right out of America and onto film.”
Today, when asked about influences, I unhesitatingly recommend The Americans as an essential experience for anyone trying to train himself to see, or report upon, the human condition. Because photography isn’t merely about order, or narration, or even truth. It’s about constantly changing, and re-charging, the conversation. Robert Frank set the modern tone for that conversation, even if he first had to render us all speechless.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
T.S. ELIOT ONCE ASKED, POIGNANTLY, ‘WHAT IS THE SOUND OF ONE HAND CLAPPING?‘ as if there could be no lonelier thing in this weary world. However, had he been a photographer, he might also have mused about the sound of one wife sighing, as her husband assures her that “I just need one more shot“, or “you can all go ahead, I’ll meet you at the gift shop.” Such assurances would be enough to send Mrs. Eliot’s one hand clapping T.S. soundly about the ears.
We really do hear the steam escaping from our wives’ ears as we mutter about whether we need a prime lens or a wide-angle for our next masterpiece. We understand that it’s not much fun watching your beloved stare at a pile of junk in a dark alley, pondering whether it all makes a profound statement about the state of the world. We get the fact that you might prefer that we answer your question about whether your mother should come and live with us, rather than mumble, “if I close down to f/11 to get past that glare, I’m gonna lose two stops of light…”
In short, we know what a colossal pain it is to be with someone who constantly hauls around a mad gaggle of gears, gauges, geegaws and gadgets. We even realize that you might have a hard time remembering the last time you saw us walking around on only two legs…..you know, without the tripod.
We stipulate that, sometimes, a hunk of rock is just a hunk of rock, not a canvas on which to mount our genius, just as “a little light reading” to the rest of the world might mean a beach thriller by Robert Crais, not the flash attachment section of the B&H Video catalog. We even admit that it’s a little catty of us to stare across the room at a restaurant and make our one contribution to the table’s conversation with, “look at that stupid guy. He’s not even framing up his shot!”
Yes, ladies, we need to not so much “get a life” as to get a slightly larger, wider one. So, thank you for reminding us that, if we fall off this mountain by stepping back for the perfect composition, we might make orphan our children. Thank you for occasionally filling us in on certain details of said children’s lives, such as their proper names, birthdays, distinguishing features, etc. Thank you for not wincing when we name the family dog Steiglitz. Thank you for not leaving us for dead when we use the foil cover from your best picnic casserole for a makeshift bounce reflector.
Mostly, as in the above scene, we humbly thank you for not seizing the opportunity to dump us and our dratted gear in the nearest abyss.
And then taking a picture of it.
And then laughing, hysterically.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY IS ONLY PARTLY ABOUT A STRING OF TECHNICAL DEVELOPMENTS AND BREAKTHROUGHS. It is also the chronicle of what those advances have done to democratize the art, moving it from the domain of rich tinkerers and elites to an arena in which nearly anyone can participate and compete. From the first box camera to Instagram, it is about breaking down barriers. This is not something that is open to debate. It just is.
That’s why it’s time to re-think the words professional and amateur as they apply to the making of images. This is the kind of topic where everybody tends to throw down passionately on one side or the other, with few straddlers or fence-sitters.
Those shooters whose toil is literally their bread and butter are, understandably, a little resentful of the newbie whose low-fi snap of a trending topic tops a million likes on Twitter, all without said snapper’s having mastered the technical ten commandments of exposure or composition. And those whose work is honest, earnest and sincere, yet formally uncertified, hate being thought of as less Authentic, Genuine, or Real simply because no one has printed their output in the approved channels of accepted craft, be it magazines like Nat Geo or the cover of the New York Times.
Okay, I get it. From your personal perspective, you don’t get no respect. But you know what? Get over yourself.
Do we really need to trot out the names of those who never got paid a penny for their work, mostly because their entire output consisted of inane selfies or dramatic lo-fi still lifes of their latest latte? Is it helpful to point out the people within the “official” photographic brotherhood whose work is lazy or derivative? Nope. It is beyond pointless for the two sides to get into an endless loop of So’s Your Mom.
So let’s go another way.
The words professional and amateur are, increasingly, distinctions without difference, at least as ways to attest to the quality of the end product: the photograph. When you pick up a magazine featuring a compelling image, do you ever, ever ask yourself whether it was taken by someone who got paid for it, or do you, in fact, either react to it or ignore it based on its power, its emotional impact, the curiosity and daring of the shooter? The fact is, photography has, from day one, been moved forward by both hobbyist and expert, and, in today’s world, the only thing that makes a shot “professional” is the talent and passion with which it’s been rendered. Anything else is just jaw music.