By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE BASIC STRUCTURE OF A LINEAR STORY IS ENGRAVED into the DNA of our collective minds in what amounts, essentially, to three words: beginning, middle, end. Three distinct phases that indicate the birth, development, and logical terminus of a narrative. You start at the left and end up at the right, like the eye reading a written sentence. That’s storytelling in a nutshell.
But are all three elements present in a photograph?
As a static moment stolen from a million zillion consecutive other moments, a frozen instant plucked out of context, a photo is, almost of necessity, missing some of the standard elements of a narrative. The shooter cannot take us on a complete journey from beginning to end. Instead, he must choose one part of that sequential timeline and make it speak for the entire process. And so we make pictures of things that are just getting under way. We make different pictures of things that are in the process of progressing or changing. We make still others of things that are coming to a close. What we choose to show affects the conversation we are having with our audience. Will they understand what point in the continuum of a story we’ve chosen to display? Does their imagination or memory supply missing information about what’s not shown, through speculation, intuition? Pictures can’t show everything, nor do all pictures even show the same kind of information. However, over generations of transactions between shooter and viewer, there is a kind of understood, if unspoken language of what was meant and what was received.
This exchange is instantaneous and instinctive, but we can step back and analyze it. For example, in the above photo, what information is given, and what is withheld? Are we at the entrance into something, or near the escape out of it? Is this a scene of quiet serenity or dark foreboding? Is there a correct answer? Does there need to be?
You and you alone control the choices, often made in an instant, of what visually makes it into the final edition of a photograph. Some of those choices will be deliberate. Others will be reactive. Photographers can either conceal or reveal, and their editorial decisions, whether done at leisure or in a blink, determine what pictures we regard as memorable, or visceral, or genuine. What I’m getting at here is that storytelling is only partly about equipment, or even conditions, like light or weather. And that only makes sense: it would be foolish, after all, to think of a novel as great merely because of which pencil or keypad the author used, or to judge a musical performance by the piano. And so the most crucial element in photography must, must, must be the eye. Once that is sharpened, storytelling hits full throttle, and, conversely, without that acuity, all we can hope for is the occasional happy accident. No one picture tells the entire story, but we are in charge of what clues make it to the viewer. And that is one amazing superpower.
I OFTEN FEEL THAT HABIT IS THE GREATEST POTENTIAL THREAT to the creative process. Once an artist approaches a new project through the comfort of his accumulated routines, he’s well on the road to mediocrity. If you find yourself saying things like “I always do” or “I typically use”…. you’re saying, in effect, that you’ve learned everything you need to learn in terms of your art. You already have all the ingredients for success. The ideal exposure. The perfect lens. The optimum technique. The Lost Ark…
And, if a kind of self-satisfied inertia is death-on-toast for artistic growth, then the most valuable tool in a photographer’s goodie bag is the ability to archive and curate his own work…..to keep a solid, traceable time line that clearly shows the evolution of his approach…..including the degree to which that approach has either moved along or stood still. That means not only hanging on to many of your worst pictures but also re-evaluating your best ones…..since your first judgement calls on both kinds of images will often be subject to change. Certainly there are photographs that are so clearly wonderful or wretched that your opinion of them won’t change over time. But they constitute the minority of your work. Everything in that vast middle ground between agony and ecstasy is a rich source of self-re-evaluation.
Revisiting old shoots doesn’t always yield hidden treasures. Sometimes the shot you thought was best from a certain day was best. But there may be only a hair’s-breadth of difference between the winners and the also-rans, and, at least in my own experience, the also-rans are where all the education is. For example, in the image seen here of my wife taken almost ten years ago and re-examined recently, I know two new things: first, I now know precisely why, at the time, I thought it was the worst of a ten-frame burst. Second, at this stage, I realize that it’s actually a lot closer to what I currently find essential about Marian’s face than the shot I formerly regarded as the “keeper”. I’m just that different in under a decade.
As you grow as a photographer, you will revise nearly every “must” or “never” in your belief system, from composition to focus and beyond. As life molds you, it will likewise mold the ways you see and comment on that life. An archive of your work, warts and all, is the most valuable resource you can consult to trace that journey, and it will nourish and inform every picture you make from here on.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE MASS PROLIFERATION OF THE CELL PHONE has fundamentally changed the dynamics of personal interaction, in a way unforeseen in the first days of Alexander Graham Bell’s original devices. In general, the first telephones were seen as an overall boon to mankind. They annihilated distance, sped up commerce, established connections between every person on the planet and every other person on the planet. If anyone in the nineteenth century had been familiar with the phrase “win-win”, the arrival of the phone might have elicited its first use.
But let’s now examine conversation itself, thinking of it as potentially photographic, an exchange which may not be overheard, but which, in terms of street photography, can be, if you will, overseen. Many wonderful images have been captured of people in the act of this kind of vigorous verbal ballet, their joy, vulnerability and engagement making for solid, natural visual drama. And the thing that has been at the base of many a conversation is that it was necessary for people to be physically adjacent to each other in order to have it. The telephone’s physical “reach” was finite. You had to be where a phone was to use one. From home. From the office. Or whenever Clark Kent freed up a booth.
With the arrival of the mobile, however, came the elimination, in millions more conversations, of the need for face-on communications….which, in turn, eliminated the “overseen” direct chat from the photographer’s daily street menu. Certainly it isn’t hard to see at least one half of a million calls ( try walking the streets without seeing one), but the narrative of a traditional conversation, captured visually by the camera, offers substantially more impact. Half a phone conversation is certainly real, but it isn’t real interesting. Technology is never really win-win, after all. In actuality, you trade off managable losses for potential major wins.
There is something palpably authentic about the connection between the women in the above image. And unlike the case of a shot of someone on their phone, the camera in this case doesn’t have to suggest or guess. It can show two people in active engagement. Trading that photographic opportunity away for mobility and convenience is one of the real consequences of the wireless revolution. And as a photographer, you may find yourself longing for a bygone, more personal kind of connectivity.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S NOW OFFICIALLY BEEN “A WHILE” since I last did a group thanks/welcome to the many of you who’ve joined The Normal Eye in recent months. I apologize for the lapse in manners, and assure you that, while I usually use the right spoon for soup and cross only at the light, I still haven’t gotten around to getting my 1987 Christmas cards sent out. It’s a process.
So, assuming that a particular post has recently motivated you to subscribe to this here small-town newspaper, thank you. And, as a way of demonstrating what to expect from us on a day-to-day basis, here’s a little backstory on TNE:
I wanted to create this forum because I feared, at the beginning of the digital age, that photography was becoming a reflexive act, a kind of knee-jerk spasm made ever more convenient but also more robotic due to amazing technical advancements that were almost literally taking the pictures for us. For sure, much of the muss and fuss of film was going away (a net gain), but the incredible foolproof–ness of even the most basic digital cameras was making speed and ease bigger considerations than the skills of seeing and planning, the most valuable traits of the slower, analog world…. a net loss, it seemed to me, for photography as an art.
Now to be clear, this platform is not, and has never claimed to be, a technical tutorial, and indeed the percentage of how-to advice we feature has always lagged way behind the why do it stuff. The Normal Eye is an examination of motivations, a way of restoring the human eye to its primary role in how pictures are made…..of normalizing it (hence the name). The eye outranks equipment, formats, subject matter, even formal training. With the eye, you can master your message with a cardboard box and a pinhole: without it, you won’t get your image made with an army of Leicas.
Happily, in the intervening years, the tide in all phases of photography has begun to turn back toward the instinctual, with amazing work by the world’s shooters that is once again placing technology in the service of the imagination. From the Lomography and Lensbaby revolutions to the resurgence of all-manual “art lenses” to a re-evaluation of (and partial return to) film, the art in photography is reasserting itself. Certainly no one answer works for everyone, but the questions are getting better.
So that’s what you signed up for: a conversation, a confrontation, a refusal to think of any single method or approach as “final” or “definitive”…..a promise to yourself to make pictures on purpose, with eyes wide open.
Thanks for joining the party.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE FIRST EMOTION I EXPERIENCE IN LOOKING AT GREAT COMMERCIAL PHOTOGRAPHERS’ WORK, is, of course, the awe that vision and talent naturally elicit. The second emotion, although I’m not proud to say it, is something akin to old-fashioned, green-eyed envy, given that so many of the world’s best images are, no surprise, taken from the world’s best vantage points. National Geographic, The Audubon Society, NASA, and hundreds of amazing journalists take our breath away not only for what they shoot, but for where they shoot it. Theirs is the stuff of Pulitzers and mass circulation. They literally make the shots seen ’round the world.
But there is, in all this camera envy, a spark of hope for the rest of us. Consider: not all of us can create great work even, by being in the right place at the right time. We also have to be the right people to make a shot eloquent, even if we’re standing at the edge of momentous events or breathtaking views. Yes, sadly, many of us won’t be sent by our editor to the sites with the greatest potential, or have enough liquidity to venture to them on our own dime. Most of us won’t be across the street for those moments when the world changes.
But here’s the deal: we do control the way we approach the places that we can get to. We can be the difference between a mundane and a miraculous image, even if the subjects we cover might escape everyone else’s glance. And we can re-imagine, through an angle, a viewpoint, a sensibility, something that’s been thought to be “photographed to death”, and harvest something fresh from it. Our cities, our daily routines, our most familiar mile markers need not have a single, “official” identity in photographs. Where we stand, what we choose to say, transforms even the most well-trod material. The street corner in the image at the top has mostly been seen or photographed at street level. Did I find something new in shooting it from an eighth-story window? And if I didn’t, could someone else?
Cameras, even the most expensive ones, don’t create beauty. Events, no matter how momentous, don’t guarantee stunning images. It’s the eye at the viewfinder, and the brain behind it, that determines whether a picture speaks.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE MORE INDEPENDENCE DAYS that I mark as an American, the more the holiday is fine-tuned, for me, from one of pure celebration to one of sober reflection. As a child, I waved my little flag, oohed and ahhed at fireworks, and ran up the scores of all our national wins and points of pride. As a middle-aged man, I think of the USA as a wonderful, but incomplete “to-do” list. I cherish what we’ve been but also try to be mindful of what we need to be. And that, in turn, widens my concept of what an Independence Day photograph can look like.
The above image, taken within the solemn sanctum of the 9/11 memorial, may not be many people’s choice for a “Happy 4th” -type picture, for a whole bunch of reasons. And I get that. There’s nothing celebratory about it. No wins, no rousing anthems. No amber waves of grain. That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s inappropriate. It may not rhapsodize about victory, but it does affirm survival. It doesn’t brag about what we have, but it does remind us of how much we stand to lose, if we take it easy, or take our eye off the ball.
The 9/11 site is unique in all the world in that it is battlefield, burial ground, transportation hub, commercial center, and museum all in one, a nexus of conflicting agendas, motives and memories. And while it’s a lot more enjoyable smiling at a snapshot of a kid with a sparkler than making pictures of the most severe tests of our national resilience, photography taken at the locations of our greatest trials are a celebration of sorts. Such pictures demonstrate that it’s the freedom we earn, as well as the freedom we inherit, that’s worth raising a cheer about.
And worth capturing inside a camera.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MOST YEAR-END ROUND-UP LISTS, from rosters of hot-selling New York Times books to summaries of the most binge-worthy tv titles, tend, in our marketing-based society, to be “best-of’s”, rankings of what’s hot and what (since it didn’t make the list) is not. I’m certainly not immune to these sales-skewed tabulations, but, in strictly artistic terms, there should also be lists that are more like “most representative of” rather than “best”.
There’s a very human reason for this distinction. Creative people are often fonder of the their personal also-rans than their personal bests. We cherish the effort, as much as, if not more than, the race results. He who came in first and he who gave it the best go are often two different people (or two different works of art), and our hearts go out (especially in the case of our own work) to the stuff that shows our growth rather than our success.
And that’s where I find my head at the end of this photographic year.
Up top of the screen, starting today, there’s a tab for a new gallery page called Fifteen for 15. Now, quickly, guess how many pictures there are in it. Then guess what year they came from. Yeah, I’m really that dull. The images therein aren’t necessarily my technical best, perhaps not even the pictures that work the best for you as an audience. But they do comprise a pretty fair sampling of every direction in which I was attempting to stretch during the year, and maybe that’s more important than a mere brag-sheet of home runs.
I used to think my goal was to develop a style that didn’t, ha ha, look like a style (oh, these artists!) . Now, I actually want to try to create a chronicle of everywhere that I stepped outside my comfort zone, since that’s where both the spectacular wins and the astounding misses reside. And if I can finish out a given calendar year and point to at least a baker’s dozen of shots that show me at least trying to color outside the lines, I’ll call that year a success. With lists, “Best-Of’s” are great for the ego. However, “Representative-Of’s” may be better for the soul.
So, that happened.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AT LEAST TWO ACQUAINTANCES HAVE RECENTLY APPROACHED ME, knowing that I shoot with Nikons, to gauge my interest in buying their old lenses. One guy has, over the years, expertly used every arrow in his technical quiver, taking great pictures with a wide variety of glass. He’s now moving on to conquer other worlds. The other, I fear, suffered a protracted attack of G.A.S., or Gear Acquisition Syndrome, the seductive illness which leads you to believe that your next great image will only come after you buy This Awesome Lens. Or This One. Or…
Perk’s Law: the purchase of photographic equipment should be made only as your ability gradually improves to the point where it seems to demand better tools to serve that advanced development. Sadly, what happens with many newbies (and Lord, I get the itch daily, myself) is that the accumulation of enough toys to cover any eventuality is thought to be the pre-cursor of excellence. That’s great if you’re a stockholder in a camera company but it fills many a man’s (and woman’s) closet with fearsome firepower that may or may not ever be (a) used at all or (b) mastered. GAS can actually destroy a person’s interest in photography.
Here’s the pathology. Newbie Norm bypasses an automated point-and-shoot for his very first camera, and instead, begins with a 25-megapixel, full-frame monster, five lenses, two flashes, a wireless commander, four umbrellas and enough straps to hold down Gulliver. He dives into guides, tutorials, blogs, DVDs, and seminars as if cramming for the state medical boards. He narrowly avoids being banished from North America by his wife. He starts shooting like mad, ignoring the fact that most of his early work will be horrible, yet valuable feedback on the road to real expertise. He is daunted by his less-than-stellar results. However, instead of going back to the beginning and building up from simple gear and basic projects, he soon gets “over” photography. Goodbye, son of Ansel. Hello Ebay.
This is the same guy who goes to Sears for a hammer and comes back with a $2,000 set of Craftsman tools, then, when the need to drive a nail arrives, he borrows a two dollar hammer from his neighbor. GAS distorts people’s vision, making them think that it’s the brushes, not the vision, that made Picasso great. But photography is about curiosity, which can be satisfied and fed with small, logical steps, a slow and steady curve toward better and better ways of seeing. And the best thing is, once you learn that,you can pick up the worst camera in the world and make music with it.
There is no shortcut.There are no easy answers. There is only the work. You can’t lose thirty pounds of ugly fat in ten days while eating pizza and sleeping in late. You need to stay after class and go for the extra credit.