By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS LEARN, FAIRLY EARLY ON, that he who controls the frame controls the conversation. The act of composition is really forced upon the artist, since every picture has some kind of hard physical limits or arbitrary dimensions. And since no photographic vista is truly unlimited, one’s vision is subject to two crucial choices: what to put in the frame, and what to leave out.
This process is lovingly demonstrated in 2017’s glorious film Wonderstruck, a nostalgic observation on the art of presentation, specifically the way it has historically been practiced by traditional museums, those special places where we arrange, as do photographs, a version of reality. The film chiefly centers upon New York’s Museum of Natural History, whose legendary dioramas of global habitats have transported generations of young minds to a universe of savannahs, shores, and deserts, all trapped in backlit cubicles and arranged in grand halls, warehouses of worlds orchestrated in darkness.
Here, in this supermarket of climates and locales, each diorama must convey its message in a shorthand of visual cues, hinting at entire ecosystems within a limited space and with only a modest number of props and textures. At their best, they echo the skills of the most effective of photographs, making eloquent choices on what is included, what is excluded, and whatever narrative power those choices generate in the finished product.
Of course, Wonderstruck’s affection for the museums it honors (including Los Angeles’ Museum Of Natural History, shown here) is a valentine to an age that is quickly vanishing, its prosaic, passive vistas giving way to the buzz and flash of ever more interactive, “hands-on” experiences, an immersive engagement that can make the dioramas of old seem like silent movies.
Still, if you can slow your absorption rate to pre-digital speeds, the old wonder boxes can still teach, because photographers are still bound by many of rules of engagement they observe. Don’t distract, attract: clarify your message: get the story told. Snapping an image is a fairly process. It takes time, real time, to learn to curate them.
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
A VIDEO BIOGRAPHY OF JOHN SZARKOWSKI, FORMER DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY for the New York Museum Of Modern Art, makes the salient point that most great photographers begin by being great fans of photography, almost to the point of studying the work of others as much as they work to perfect their own craft. This makes perfect sense. Before you can teach others to see, you have to learn to see yourself. And that begins with watching how other people see.
Learning from the masters doesn’t necessarily mean stealing from them, or even being stylistically influenced by them. What you see most importantly in other photographers is how closely their selves are married to how they personally take the measure of the world in visual terms. You learn how few real accidents there are, how few miraculous pictures merely pop out of the camera fully formed. You see the deliberate agency of art, the conscious decision to choose this in order to achieve that.
Szarkowski, who oversaw MOMA’s photographic collections and exhibitions from 1962 to 1991, bore witness as well to the first true acceptance of photography as an art unto itself, with a vocabulary, a power, a poetry separate and distinct from painting. Under Szarkowski’s tutelage, the great new personal photographers, from Garry Winogrand to Diane Arbus to Lee Friedlander, moved from the periphery to the center of popular culture.
Not content to merely designate work worth seeing, or providing it with a prominent platform, Szarkowski also edited and published two of the most important general-use guides to what all of us should look for in a photograph. His seminal books The Photographer’s Eye and Looking At Photographs, both comprised of works from within MOMA’s collections, examined more than just subject matter or technical data, looking at the motives, biases, objectives and visions involved in the making of pictures. Most importantly, both books placed known and unknown shooters on an equal par, making the study of the art about what is achieved, not just how, or by whom.
I cannot imagine having sustained a lifelong interest in making images if I had not first encountered the works of, among others, Pete Turner, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Larry Burrows, Richard Avedon, Berenice Abbott, Alfred Stieglitz, Art Kane, Weegee, Sam Abell, or Francis Wolff. Many of these people thrilled and inspired me. Sometimes they infuriated or shocked me. And sometimes they did all of that in the same moment. All have knocked me upside of the head and repeated, over a lifetime: Look here. Look closer. Look again.
Don’t ever let anyone tell you that photography is about technique, gear, luck or natural ability. You can work around all that stuff. But if you can’t see, you can’t show.
Study. Read. Admire.
Feed your eye.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I OFTEN FANTASIZE ABOUT STANDING UP AND OFFERING A TOAST at a banquet hall crammed with photographers, just because it’s fun to play with what it might sound like….to see if I could strike some verbal chord that would resonate equally with everyone in the room, from the noobies to pro’s. I constantly change the exact wording, but the sentiment in my head is always something like:
May the best picture you took today be your worst picture ever, ten years from now.
What did he say? Does he hope the masterpiece I captured today will someday be regarded by me as garbage?
Well, yes, of course I do. At least I hope that for my stuff. If I still love today’s work ten years from now, it will mean that I stopped growing and learning, like, well, today. Consider: I can’t ever know everything about my craft, and can’t hope to “top out” or reach perfection within my lifetime. And why would I want to? If today is the best I’ll ever do, why not save time and money, smash my cameras, and consider myself done?
The entire point of artistic expression is that it is an evolutionary process. If I still took pictures the way I did at twelve, that would be like having been on a Ford assembly line for half a century, with one indistinguishable cog after another coming down the belt, and me adding the same screw to it, every day, for eternity. Photography appeals to us because, like any other measure of our mind, it will be in flux forever. It’s divinely uncertain.
And I want that uncertainty. I want the good shots that come on lousy days. I need the images that I made when I had no idea what I was doing. I crave the betrayals that camera bodies, lenses, changing weather conditions or cranky kids will hurl at me. Edward Steichen often referred to the act of refreshing one’s work as “kicking the tripod”, and, like that seismic shock, your own morphing ideas of how to do all this will benefit from an occasional earthquake.
Do great pictures always come from adversity? Of course not, or else my morbidly depressed friends would be the greatest photographers on earth. However, the sheer careening instability of life pretty much guarantees that the things that thrill you about today’s shots will make you shake your head ten years down the line, and devise different ways of solving all the eternal problems.
And so, a toast…to the great pictures you made today, and to the day that you can barely stand to look at them.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU MAY FIND, AS I HAVE, THAT MANY OF THE BEST PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE ALSO, ARTISTICALLY, SPEAKING, “SOMETHING ELSE“. That is, their creative energies emerge in more than just one medium, even if images are their preferred language. This has always been thus. During the camera’s infancy, many photogs were former painters. Writers were also among the first to explore the new art of picture-making, and the amateur photo work of scribes like Emile Zola and Lewis Carroll remain worthy of note today.
In the 20th century, some painters-turned-photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson turned back to the brush late in life, while other artists like Man Ray stayed firmly anchored in both camps. And even the great theologian and poet Thomas Merton spent his last years as a Trappist monk dabbling in a kind of zen expressionism through the viewfinder of his Canon 35mm.
This doesn’t exactly prove that everyone who is adept in one kind of art will also be effective as a photographer, but it does demonstrate that some people who are curious in all ways of expression will sometimes also choose the camera as an instrument. I personally believe that this can only improve your way of seeing, since “vision” isn’t achieved merely through the eyes, but through the accumulation of all one’s life experience.
I would even go one step farther and claim that just studying photography may be bad for one’s development as a photographer. Rather, it is the total weight of one’s life which shapes one’s seeing, just as a worldlier view can inform one’s writing, cooking, singing, or strumming. No one art is so complete that it can operate in a vacuum, sealed away from all the other arts.
We readily accept that composers need to occasionally be historians, that writers should sometimes be philosophers, and that both painters and chefs should master a little science, so how can we believe that photographers can comment on the whole of life without at least dabbling in the world beyond their computers or darkrooms? You cannot be willfully blind as a person and visionary as a photographer at the same time. The more there is of you, the more of you there is that makes it into your pictures.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY, AND THE SPEED, ECONOMY AND EASE IT HAS BROUGHT TO NEARLY EVERYONE, has allowed an incredible acceleration of the learning curve for shooters, a temporal shortcut that has effectively enabled people to master in years what used to take a lifetime (not to say a personal fortune). Without the lag time and cost baked into the film medium, photographers can shoot a lot. Like, a lot.
Problem is, this skyrocketing learning curve for shooting skill has not been accompanied by an accompanying curve in editing skill. As a matter of fact, the two skills are going in opposite directions. And that is a bad, bad thing.
In the film era, there was limited admission to the “photographer’s club” at the pro level, and all pros had some way of winnowing out their weaker work. They had editors, publishers, or some kind of independent eye to separate the wheat from the chaff. Only the best work was printed or displayed. Not everyone made the cut. Some of us had to admit that we didn’t have “it”. There was more to photography than the mere flick of our shutter fingers.
Now enter the digital age, and, with it, the ersatz democracy of the internet age. Suddenly, all of everyone’s photos are equal, or so we have come to think. All images go to the infinite shoebox of the web: the good stuff, the not-so-good stuff, the what-the-hell stuff, all of it. Accounts on Flickr and Instagram allow posters a massive amount of upload space, and there are few, if any strictures on content or quality. But here’s the ugly truth: if all of our photos are special, then none of them are.
You can take most of the formalized schools on photography and sink them in the nearest bog with no damage to any of us, with one singular exception: those tutorials which teach us how to objectively evaluate our own work. Knowing how to wield the scissors on one’s own “babies” is the most important skill in all of photography, because, without that judgement, no amount of technical acumen matters.
If you don’t learn what is good and how close or far you, yourself have come to that mark, then how can anything become exceptional, or excellent? If your work has never had to face real critical heat, there is no incentive for you to change or evolve. This is increasingly important for the millions of self-publishing shooters and scribblers like me who presume to pronounce on what photography is. Just cause we’re in print don’t mean we’re right, or even honest.
Art cannot grow in a vacuum, and so, I say again, if we can’t self-edit, we can’t claim to be photographers, not in any real way. The curve of honest self-evaluation must soar alongside the curve of technical acuity, or the whole thing’s a joke.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ANYONE WHO REGULARLY VISITS THESE PAGES already knows that I advocate of doing as much of your photography in as personal and direct a way as possible. While I am completely astonished by the number of convenience items and automatic settings offered to the casual photographer in today’s cameras, I believe that many of these same features can also delay the process by which people take true hands-on control of their image-making. I regard anything that gets in between the shooter and the shutter as a potential distraction, even a drag on one’s evolution.
Tools are not technique. Here are two parallel truths of photography: (1) some people with every gizmo in the toy store take lousy pictures. (2) some people with no technical options whatsoever create pictures that stun the world.
From my view, you can either subscribe to the statement, “I can’t believe what this camera can do!” or to one which says, “I wonder what I can make my camera do for me!” The very controls built into cameras to make things convenient for newcomers are the first things that must be abandoned once you are ready to move beyond newcomer status. At some point, you learn that there is no way any camera can ever contain enough magic buttons to give you uniformly excellent results without your active participation. You simply cannot engineer a device that will always deliver perfection and perpetually protect you from your own human limits.
Innovators never innovate by surrounding themselves with the comfortable and the familiar. For photographers, that means making decisions with your pictures and living with the uneven results in the name of self-improvement. This is a challenge because manufacturers seductively argue that such decisions can be made painlessly by the camera acting alone. But guess what. If you don’t actively care about your photos, no one else will either. There may not be anything technically wrong with your camera’s “choices”. But they are not your choices, and eventually, you will want more. The structure that at first made you feel safe will, in time, start to feel more like a cage.
Tools are not technique.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ALONG WITH DARK MEAT, CRANBERRY SAUCE, AND THE PERFECT YAM, I find unending Thanksgiving nourishment from the words of every photographer who has gone before me. And if this week marks our annual listing of gifts and gratitude, I would offer, as no less important than family and friends, the collected Wisdom Of Shooters Past as a hearty, ten-course meal for amateurs and professionals alike to feast on. It’s nice to remember that we are all trying to learn to see, and see well, and is an encouraging reminder that, behind all great lenses, there are great minds. The thought precedes the image, and, indeed, without that spark, we are all just mechanics.
Therefore, without further ado, ten noble sentiments on the fine art of harnessing light, for this day of thanks:
It is more important to click with people than to click the shutter.—-Alfred Eisenstaedt
Photographing a culture in the here and now often means photographing the intersection of the present with the past.–David Duchemin
A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.—-Diane Arbus
One should really use the camera as though tomorrow you’d be stricken blind.–Dorothea Lange
A portrait is not made in the camera but on either side of it.–Edward Steichen
To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.—Elliot Erwitt
Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.–Henri Cartier-Bresson
The eye should learn to listen before it looks.—Robert Frank
If the photographer is interested in the people in front of his lens, and if he is compassionate, that’s already a lot. The instrument is not the camera but the photographer.—Eve Arnold
Don’t pack up your camera until you’ve left the location.–Joe McNally
Always be seeing.
Always be shooting.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHIC “MASTER THEORIES” ARE ONLY SLIGHTLY LESS PLENTIFUL than donuts at an AA meeting. I can’t hope to add any fresh shimmer to the bright shiny ideas on picture-making that have already been burnished by time, but I do believe that total photography is very tied to total development as a human being. Sounds like a mountaintop audience with the Maharishi, I know, but I think that, as we limit ourselves as people, so do we limit our ability to effectively interpret or record the world around us. This is not the stuff of master theses, for sure, but when it comes to photography as a way of life, I think all the wisdom you need boils down to a three-rung ladder, arranged thus:
TOP RUNG: LIVE MORE THAN YOU READ. Have direct, personal experiences that truly involve you. Do not vicariously re-live other people’s experiences and call that a life. Get your eyes off the screen, your ears out from under the Dr. Dre Beats, and your hands into the dirt. Learn concepts that call upon you to stretch. Try things that hurt. Taste stuff with strange ingredients. Learn to listen to ideas you think you’ll hate. Certainly, academic learning and secondary experiences have their value. We can’t all trek to Katmandu or scale Everest. But our grasp can certainly exceed what’s on Nickelodeon, a simple truth that brings us to:
MIDDLE RUNG. READ MORE THAN YOU SHOOT. You cannot possibly learn everything about photography by merely going out and doing. You have over two centuries of history, art, philosophy and example to absorb, even if your own style eventually goes rogue. You need influences. You need teachers. The shooters that went before you left wheels for you to roll on. Don’t try to re-invent those wheels; learn to steer by them. And do not limit your reading to photography. You cannot shoot what you cannot appreciate, and you cannot appreciate what you know nothing about. Learn the world, thus earning your right to have a point of view. And, finally, we have:
BOTTOM RUNG: SHOOT MORE THAN YOU THINK YOU NEED TO. Certainly shoot more often than when you “have something to shoot”. Shoot when you’re dry. Shoot when you’re bored. Shoot when you’re wired/angry/amazed/frightened/joyful. Be okay looking like a fool for an idea. Most of all, be willing to take more lousy shots than the next ten guys put together. Think of all those bum images as the thick leaves of Christmas paper swaddling your best pictures. You gotta tear away all the layers to get to your shiny toys.
If these three rungs seem grossly over-simplified to you, try them for about forty years and get back to me. Photography cannot evolve unless we refine the person who clicks the shutter. None of these steps are guaranteed to produce immortal images. But you sure as hell can’t create greatness without them.