the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Desert

WRITING THE FINAL CHAPTERS

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

SAXOPHONIST PAUL DESMOND, asked the “how’s it going?” question during his many years with the Dave Brubeck Quartet, frequently answered, “we’re making music like it’s going out of style….which, of course, it is.” A glib answer, certainly, but no less accurate for being so. Everything, everywhere, is, indeed, always going out of style. Photographers feel the rhythm of a clock that is synched to all of existence. We raise constantly against that unheard tick, extracting and freezing moments to testify that, yes, the world was this way.

But the clock is now ticking off not only the passing of things within the world, but, plausibly, the very world itself. The planet is straining at its physical limits, veering toward the voiding of The Big Warranty. And while can all rattle our gums about where all this change will eventually lead, photographers have an obligation to record where it has already made itself known. In shrinking ice shelves. Rising seas. Searing summers. Vanishing species. Storms without mercy and without end.

From my viewpoint, in the American southwest, the seasons pass into years and the years pass into decades with record-setting drought as the only constant. Reservoirs become ditches. Temperatures start to resemble good IQ scores. And in the above image, shot about an hour south of Tucson, Arizona, the bed of the San Pedro River is a cracked plain, a parched memory, a ghost.

In marking these monumental shifts, photography is both eloquent and neutral. The camera doesn’t care how we got to this place, nor does it assign a name to the blame. That kind of storytelling falls to wiser minds. But in a visual medium like ours, a tale can be told just by declaring “this is.This happened.” Politics and science can arm-wrestle about the details and the destiny. Pictures go beyond that noise. They are eloquent beyond words.

One thing is certain. Whether we are reporting the latest chapters of the human story or the final ones, photography is testimony. And we are all witnesses.

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NOTHING IS EVERYTHING

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THERE HAVE DEFINITELY BEEN TIMES IN MY LIFE when I have actually craved the special kind of loneliness that Arizona has in abundance. This is a place where brain-boggling chasms of space can exist between society and desolation, between boom and bust. The contrast is stark with a capital, well, stark. If you want to get lost, I mean good and lost, like vanished-off-the-freaking-map lost, Arizona’s vast, starched plains and heat-blasted mesquite are your solution. Other times there is such a sharp edge between lots of something and all kinds of nothing that you can almost feel despair chewing around the edges of your contentment like a termite on a bender.

Photographically, you can either celebrate Arizona’s chest-thumping pride in the survival of the individual or lament the sense of isolation underscored by its lunar landscapes….or both. An image that thrills one person with a sensation of unfettered freedom can make another individual feel like the state has abandoned him or her by the side of a dusty road to no place.

In the case of the above image, it could go either way. The buildings here do not constitute the entire business district of downtown Cottonwood, Arizona, but they’re damned close. One thing that’s absolutely true is that there isn’t much on either side of the town’s main stem that feels…townlike. Yes, the municipality has a few small supporting streets, peppered with a smattering of residences and small shops, but Cottonwood is essentially a brief, linear dash in the middle of an endless paragraph about emptiness. To some shooters, (sometimes me) this is an enlistment poster for personal liberty, with the land always having the last say in any discussion. For others (again, sometimes me), it’s a reminder that, in a face-off between man and the West, the West has a decided, even unfair edge. Showing both of these stories within a single picture, however, isn’t necessarily a conflict in terms.

Photography addresses extremes, and often in a frustratingly ambiguous fashion. But show me an art where that doesn’t happen.


EATS

You want fries with that? Blythe, California's Courtesy Coffee Shop. 1/320 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

You want fries with that? Blythe, California’s Courtesy Coffee Shop. 1/320 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IN HIS WONDERFUL 1960 ROAD JOURNAL, TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY, John Steinbeck, author of The Grapes Of Wrath, Of Mice And Men and other essential American novels, laments the passing of a kind of America in much the same way that a roving photographer might. “I wonder”, he wrote as he motored through one vanishing frontier after another, “why progress looks so much like destruction.” That’s a sentiment that many a shooter has experienced as he pans his viewfinder over the various fading scenes of a constantly changing nation.  Steinbeck sang his ode to these vaporized hopes on the printed page. We freeze their vanishings in a box.

1/40 sec., f/4.5, ISO 200, 35mm.

Counter Culture: 1/40 sec., f/4.5, ISO 200, 35mm.

However, capturing changes in a rambling big hulk of a country encompasses more than merely mourning the loss of a forest or the paving of a paradise. Photographic testimony needs to be made on the evolution of even the America we feel is vulgar, or ugly, or strange, as well as on the disappearance of the buffalo. There can be a visual poignancy in seeing even our strangest, most misbegotten features dissolving away, and great picture opportunities exist in both the beautiful and the tawdry.

One of the strangest visual cultures that we see cracking and peeling away across the USA is the culture of eating. The last hundred years have seen the first marriage between just taking a meal and deliberately creating architecture that is aimed at marketing that process. Neon signs, giant Big Boys shouldering burgers, garish arrows pointing the way to the drive-through….it’s crude and strange and wonderful, all at the same time, and even more so as its various icons start to fall by the wayside.

The Courtesy Coffee Shop, baking in the desert sun just beyond the Arizona border in Blythe, California, is one such odd rest stop. Its mid-century design, so edgy at the start of space ships and family station wagons, creaks now with age, a museum to cheeseburgers and onion rings of yesteryear.  Its waitresses look like refugees from an episode of Alice. It recalls the glory days of flagstone and formica. And they’ve been doing the bottomless coffee cup thing there since the Eisenhower administration.

Steinbeck, were he on the road again today, might not give a jot about the passing of the Courtesy into history, but restaurants can be interesting mile markers on the history trail just as much as mountains and lakes. Besides, when’s the last time a mountain whipped up a  Denver omelet for you?


REAPING AN UNEXPECTED HARVEST

Abiquiu, New Mexico, October 8, 2013. 1/400 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 30mm.

Abiquiu, New Mexico, October 8, 2013. 1/400 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 30mm.

IT’S NOT HARD TO RETURN FROM A SHOOT WITH FAR LESS THAN YOU HOPED FOR, BECAUSE IT HAPPENS SO MUCH OF THE TIME. Coming home with a sack full of visual Christmas that you hadn’t even thought to ask for is far more rare. With that in mind, I have just opened an entire tree-ful of treasures upon flying back from my first visit to New Mexico in three years. Maybe that should be trees full, given the golden glow of the entire state under a wash of autumnal cottonwoods during my time there.

As covered in the previous post, Redemption, One Frame At A Time , I was returning to NM for personal reasons, but also to tackle the problem of color “softness” that blunted the impact of some of my shots from previous trips. The blistering brilliance of sunlight in the southwestern states is unlike anything photographers will face within the USA, and what looks like “blue” sky to your naked eye will often register as pale blue or even white once the shutter snaps. Here in Phoenix, Arizona, I’ve learned to make a few basic exposure adjustments to compensate over the years, but recently I have also begun to attach a polarizing filter to cut the way-crazy glare of midday, and I was eager to see what could be accomplished in New Mex, where my destination would be another 4,700 feet above sea level higher, and even more blinding in its intensity.

October 29, 2013, Albuquerque, New Mexico. 1/800 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

October 29, 2013, Albuquerque, New Mexico. 1/800 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

Once I got to the tiny town of Abiquiu, the historic landing point of painter Georgia O’Keeffe, I realized that, along with rendering the skies the correct blue, the filter was also going to produce an intense yellow as contrast, since the area’s native cottonwoods were exploding with gold, softening the harsher terrain and popping against the sky with a near-neon vibrancy. Having lived in the southwest for nearly fifteen years, I had long ago learned to live without the full range of hues that were a given, in states where the seasons are visually more defined. It was like coming home.

Golden leaves, earth tones, weathered wood, sand and stone all combined to deliver a textbook autumn for my grateful eyes, and I proceeded to hammer the shutter button until my arthritis threatened to end the party. Reaping an unexpected harvest is the best part of photography.

It’s the perpetual thrill of hearing light saying:  See what happens when I do……this. 

Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.


REDEMPTION, ONE FRAME AT A TIME

Vigil Variety, 2010. 1/320 sec., f/8, ISO 200, 50mm.

Vigil Variety, 2010. 1/320 sec., f/8, ISO 200, 50mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

AS YOU READ THIS, I AM AVAILING MYSELF OF ONE OF THE MOST SPLENDID BENEFITS KNOWN TO A PHOTOGRAPHER: THE DO-OVER. Ahhh. Feels good just saying it. Do-over; the artistic equivalent of doing penance, of setting things right. Returning to the locales of your earlier misbegotten attempts at a subject, with just the chance that you’ve learned a few new tricks since your last try.

Redemption.

Maybe it’s just that possibility  which thrills….that, and the hope of exorcising those little demons which jab you with pitchforks every time you look at shots from bygone outings. In my case, I’m trying to banish the Ghosts Of New Mexico Trips Past. It’s my third trip to the regions between Alberquerque and Abiquiu, which includes Santa Fe. It’s an odd mix of terrain, economic strata, art, superstition, spectacular vistas and harsh romance. Anything you want to shoot is there to be seen, some of it invisible and needing to be brought froth for the naked eye.

Sisters, 2010. 1/320 sec., f/8, ISO 200. 50mm.

Sisters, 2010. 1/320 sec., f/8, ISO 200. 50mm.

It’s not hard to see why painter Georgia O’Keeffe, banishing herself from the concrete canyons of Manhattan, decided to stage her own do-over in this mysterious land in 1929. O’Keefe had been a photographer’s wife, and painters and photogs are often twin kids of different mothers, so I emotionally understand what she saw in New Mexico, but far more than I have been able to intellectually convey.

So far.

It’s been nearly a decade from my first visit to my third, so I now have a little backlog of what will and won’t work, maybe even an inkling of what I’m trying to show going forward. I didn’t come back from the first two trips empty-handed, but I didn’t come back with the motherlode, either. Since the only real barriers to most photo do-overs are geographic, i.e., the means to return to the scene of the crime, I am really blessed at being able to get another at-bat at this incredible place.

Two strikes, three balls.

I plan to swing for the fences.

Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.


IT’S NOT EASY BEIN’ GREEN

In the desert? A Phoenix area public park at midday. There is a way around the intense glare. 1/500 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm, straight out of the camera.

This is the desert? A Phoenix area public park at midday. There is a way around the intense glare. 1/500 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm, straight out of the camera.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

FOR YEARS I HAVE BEEN SHOOTING SUBJECTS IN THE URBAN AREAS OF PHOENIX, ARIZONA, trying to convey the twin truths that, yes, there are greenspaces here, and yes, it is possible for a full range of color to be captured, despite the paint-peeling, hard white light that overfills most of our days. Geez, wish I had been shooting here in the days of Kodachrome 25. Slow as that film was, the desert would have provided more than enough illumination to blow it out, given the wrong settings. Now if you folks is new around here, lemme tell you about the brilliant hues of the Valley of the Sun. Yessir, if’n you like beige, dun, brown, sepia or bone, we’ve got it in spades. Green is a little harder to come by, since the light registers it in a kind of sickly, sagebrush flavor….kind of like Crayola’s “green-yellow” (or is it “yellow-green”?) rather than a deep, verdant, top-o-the-mornin’ Galway green.

But you can do workar0unds.

In nearby Scottsdale, hardly renowned for its dazzling urban parks (as opposed to the resort properties, which are jewels), Indian School Park at Hayden and Indian School Roads is a very inviting oasis, built around a curvy, quiet little pond, dozens of mature shade trees that lean out over the water in a lazy fashion, and, on occasion, some decorator white herons. Thing is, it’s also as bright as a steel skillet by about 9am, and surrounded by two of the busiest traffic arteries in town. That means lots of cars in your line of sight for any standard framing. You can defeat that by turning 180 degrees and aiming your shots out over the middle of the pond, but then there is nothing really to look at, so you’re better off shooting along the water’s edge. Luckily, the park is below street level a bit, so if you frame slightly under the horizon line you can crop out the cars, but, with them, the upper third of the trees. Give and take.

There is still a ton of light coming down between the shade trees, however, so if you want any detail in the water or trees at all, you must shoot into shade where you can, and go for a much faster shutter speed….1/500 up to 1/1000 or faster. It’s either that or shoot the whole thing at a small f-stop like f/11 or more. In desert settings you’ve got so much light that you can truly dance near the edge of what would normally be underexposure, and all it will do is boost and deepen the colors that are there. There will still be a few hot spots on projecting roots and such where the light hits, but the beauty of digital is that you can click away and adjust as you go.

It’s not quite like creating greenspace out of nothing, but there are ways to make things plausibly seem to be a representation of real life, and, since this is an interpretive medium, there’s no right or wrong. And the darker-than-normal shadows in this kind of approach add a little warmth and mystery, so there’s that.

It was “yellow-green”, wasn’t it?

Hope that’s not on the final.

(follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye)


GET LOST

Straight through the windsheild, using a technique I like to call "dumb luck".

Straight through the windshield, using a technique I like to call “dumb luck”. Original shot specs:  1/320 sec., f/8, ISO 100, 35mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHY IS 10% PLANNING, 90% SERENDIPITY. Yes, I know. we would all rather believe that most of our images spring from brilliant conceptions, master plans, and, ahem, stunning visions. But a lot of what we do amounts to making the most of what fate provides.

There is no shame in this game. In fact, the ability to pivot, to improvise, to make the random look like the intentional…all of these things reveal the best in us. It exercises the eye. It flexes the soul. And, in terms of images, it delivers the goods.

Getting lost (geographically, not emotionally) is less an emergency than in ages past. Armed with smartphones, GPS, and other hedges against our own ignorance, we can get rescued almost as soon as we wander off the ranch. It is easier than ever to follow the electronic trail of crumbs back to where we belong, so drifting from the path of righteousness is no longer cause for panic. Indeed, for shooters, it’s pure opportunity.

Okay, so you’re not where you’re supposed to be. Fine. Re-group and start shooting. There is something in all these “unfamiliar” things that is worth your gaze.

Last week , my wife and I decided to trust her car’s onboard guidance system. The results were wrong but interesting. No danger, just the necessary admission that we’d strayed really far afield of our destination. We’re talking about twenty minutes of back-tracking to set things right.

But first….

One of the rural roads we drifted down, before realizing our error, led us to a stunning view of the back end of Tucson’s Catalina mountains, framed by small town activity, remnants of rainfall, and a portentous sky. I squeezed off a few shots straight out of the windshield and got what I call the “essence” exposure I needed. That single image was relatively well-balanced, but it wouldn’t show the full range of textures from the stormy sky and the mountains. Later, in post, I duplicated the one keeper frame that I got, modifying it in Photomatix, my HDR processing program. Adding underexposure, deeper contrast, and a slight rolloff of highlights on the dupe, I processed it with the original shot to get a composite that accentuated the texture of the clouds, the stone,, even the local foliage. A sheer “wild” shot had given me something that I would have totally missed if the car’s GPS had actually taken us to our “correct” destination.

What was ironic was that, once we got where we were going, most of the “intentional” images that I sweat bullets working on were lackluster, compared to the one I shot by the seat of my pants. Hey, we’ve all been there.

Maybe I should get lost more often.

Actually, people have been suggesting that to me for years.

Especially when I whip out a camera.


DREAMS DOWN TO DUST

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IT WAS, ON ONE LEVEL, A COMPLETE WASTE OF GASOLINE: a half-hour’s drive to a dusty cluster of tables scattered across a vacant lot in Carefree, Arizona; a gathering of junk gypsies, hunkering for shade under their teepee nation of display tents, their sprawls of pre-owned debris bunched onto card tables filled with the remains of people’s lives. It was going to take exactly five minutes to make one sad pass around this serpentine mound of resale refuse. No treasures today. Maybe we have time to catch lunch before we drive back to town.

These strange mash-ups of godforsaken bric-a-brac are common in many of the small towns of the southwest. Sometimes they are found shoehorned into sagging old adobe buildings on their umpteenth re-use. Other times they are charitably called “swap meets” or “vintage sales” and litter the parking lots of down-and-out drive-in theatres like the aftermath of an air crash. The visual impact is always the same, that of an attic that has been dynamited to bits, then shoveled into milk cartons and slapped with improvised glo-orange price tags. Coffee cans filled with unrelated fragments of trinkets; cardboard cartons overflowing with random chunks of household backfill. Two mysteries pervade: where has all of this come from….and where can it possibly be heading?

Once Loved: 1/25 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 55mm.

I was about one minute away from the end of my doleful tour when I spotted this box, which someone had filled with mis-matched bits of small dolls. One of such souvenirs on a big table makes no visual impression whatever, but a mass of them together is some kind of little minor-key symphony of dreams gone down to dust. Loved objects that were once transformed into the stuff of fancy, now just shards of lives dumped into a cigar box. I risked one picture. For some reason it haunts me.

But see what you think.

It isn’t about what we look at but what we see.

We leave such a colossal wake of trash behind us as our lives thunder and crash through the world. How to sort out all the stories inside?


WAITING FOR THE REVEAL

What lies beyond that door? Probably nothing to match the outside mood afforded to this forgotten delivery entrance by the onset of night. Hey, this is all about the magic, right? 15 second time-exposure, f/9, ISO 100, 20mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THERE’S A REASON BATMAN DOESN’T SWING THROUGH THE SKY AT HIGH NOON. Or that Shakespeare didn’t have his witches crowded around a cauldron during the mid-morning coffee break. And, of course, there are no love ballads bearing the title By The Light Of The Silvery…Sun. Mood is everything in photography and many subjects just don’t convey mystery or romance when brightly lit. This is no truer anywhere else than in the American southwest.

In Arizona, New Mexico, and California, there are plenty of places where the sun blazes away like a Hollywood klieg light during most of the day. The light is harsh, white, glaring. By mid-morning across the summer months most of the richer colors are blasted right out of the sky, and the only way to capture beauty is to wait for the hours warmed by low light.

Or no light.

I’ve always been a big believer in the transformation of familiar materials once night falls, and, going back to my old baby box camera days, I have always marveled at the simple miracle of holding a shutter open long enough to wring a few extra drops of light—just enough–from the deepening dark. I call it waiting for the reveal, and it never fails to serve up surprises.

One night last week, I was waiting on the sunset to fully finish behind a destination restaurant in Paradise Valley, Arizona (that’s really the name of the town…kind of like naming your city “Wonderfulville”). The front entrances and patios were gorgeous, of course, but after about a half hour I found myself getting restless with the utter postcardiness of it all. I was looking for something off the grid, forbidden even.

I found this door around the side of the resort, hidden by an overgrown, narrow walkway and illuminated by a single bleak bulb. As a location, especially in the daytime, this is no one’s idea of a choice spot. Except at this precise moment. It actually works better because of how much you can’t see, and I can’t justify shooting it at all, except that the reveal was working for me. And, while I liked the more conventional Chamber of Commerce shots I had taken earlier, there is something iffy and offbeat about this frame that I keep coming back to.

Sometimes the underdog is the best dog in the fight.