By MICHAEL PERKINS
I FIRST ENCOUNTERED THE WORD MONOGRAPH in the early pages of Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study In Scarlet, as I was just becoming acquainted with the thoroughness of Sherlock Holmes’ deductive process. The word was applied to, in this case, an extensive study of different kinds of cigar ash as a tool in the identification of criminals, but I came to know the word to denote a collection of thoughts around a common central subject, an examination of a theme over much time and many case histories. And, while the word is predominantly used to label written studies….collections of essays, the building of a theory, etc., I have always admired the “monographs” which have become the signature works of great photographers.
Robert Franks’ iconic The Americans is surely a monograph, as his eye builds a mosaic-like profile of this country across all its race and class lines. The first eerie series of portraits by Diane Arbus is also a monograph, as is Edward Steichen’s staggering museum exhibit The Family Of Man. In this age of self-publishing, it’s possible for photographers to organize book collections of their work along whatever thematic lines they choose, and, even though its role is vastly different in the present century, the book format is at least a way to contain one’s theme within fixed physical borders. And that may be why I still find it a comfortable format.
It’s been some time since I tried such a project (such as the one with which this blog shares its title), mostly because I never seemed to have quite enough images to flesh out the theme I was trying to present. And then there’s the problem of subject matter. People naturally expect photo collections to be “about” something, and the thing that unifies a set selection of pictures for me may be absolutely meaningless to the viewer. But with the distance of some twenty years of shooting in the digital domain, I’ve given it another go. My new book Fiat Lux (Let There Be Light) is nothing more than a chance to examine, in as broad a variety of pictures as I can, of the properties of “available light”. I never set out to deliberately boycott flashes or artificial illumination, but I find that the preparation that accompanies their use tends to slow me down and make me lose shots. Moreover, I find that the modeling properties, mysteries and drama of light often makes it the star of a picture all by itself. Most importantly, I see the original object of photography, that is, harnessing light to one’s purpose, as its most enduring and seductive feature, and I always choose the most direct route, from simple cameras to fast lenses, to achieve that goal.
The other objective in compiling Fiat Lux is to force myself into an editorial conundrum. I deliberately kept the total number of images in the book low to make myself make tough choices about (a) whether I have a style at all, and (b) which shots are essential to an understanding of that style, assuming I’d vanish off the earth tomorrow with nothing but this slim volume to explain myself to interested parties. I’ve had several people ask me, over the years, why I didn’t “just put out a book”, but, of course, I never “just” do anything, and so a certain amount of self-doubt and agony has gone into the process. Anyway, if you are so inclined, a sneak preview of some of the collection’s pages, as well as the option to order it, can be found here. Is it a monograph? Perhaps more of an autograph. Or an autobiography. Captions and labels are pretty useless, anyway, if the pictures aren’t there. The important thing is to show what you can show, and move on to the next picture. Thank God there’s always another picture.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS AND MAGICIANS SHARE A COMMON POWER, in that both of them selectively practice the art of concealment. Now you see it, now you don’t. Both the shooter and the shaman, in their own ways, know the importance of the slow reveal, the smooth manipulation of the viewer’s concept of reality. Best of all, they know how to choreograph and stage visual information. Here, they insist. Look here.
In a lifetime of studying portrait photographers, I have been fascinated by the nearly endless variety of approaches used to convey the human personality/soul in a static image. There are the formal studio sittings. There are the street ambushes of the paparazzo. And there are the shadowy, soft, gently suggestive pictures in which the classic representation of a “face” may not occur at all. This is the blending of revelation and mystery, and it is where portraits, at least for me, genuinely aspire to art.
Some of my favorite images in this area were Edward Steichen’s studies with the sculpture Auguste Rodin, dark, smeary pieces of pure mood in which the great man was reduced to a near silhouette, as if he and his sculptures were forged out of the same raw material. I learn next to nothing of Rodin’s face from these pictures, and yet I learn worlds about his spirit. Steichen reveals as he conceals.
Which gives me an idea.
As I skim through the daily global tsunami of selfies, many of them simple grinning headshots, I see an incredible opportunity to start a completely new dialogue on what constitutes a portrait….or even a face. That opportunity will be squandered if 99% of selfies only look like slightly happier passport photos, rather than a real growth medium for investigating the self, for using the face as a compositional accent, an arranged object within a larger design.
Why selfies? Because the subject is always available. Because the technology of both mobile phones and conventional cameras allows for faster and more far-reaching experimentation. And because re-framing a subject you think you know intimately, merely by shifting where the veil lifts or falls, can be the difference between conceal and reveal.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I FEEL THAT THERE SHOULD ALWAYS HAVE BEEN A NOBEL PRIZE FOR PHOTOGRAPHY, just as there always has been for literature. Why one of the lively arts should be deemed more capable of uplift or inspiration than another is beyond me. I even think that a photo Nobel might be more inspiring, overall, than the majority of images that cop the journalistic Pulitzer prize each year, since so many of the winning entries focus on horror, loss, war, and suffering….you know, the stuff that sells newspapers.
If there ever had been a Nobel for photography, I can think of no more obvious winner than the legendary Family Of Man exhibit, mounted by Edward Steichen, which just observed its sixtieth anniversary with a marvelously updated edition of its original catalogue book. Steichen, who in 1955 was the director of photography for the Museum of Modern Art, was himself a grand master of still-lifes, portraits, fashion, architectural, and even floral studies, whose own output towered over the world for over seven decades. However, he used the Family show not to showcase his own work but to show the universality of the human experience across every culture on the planet, as interpreted by over 273 photographers in 69 countries. Mounted in cooperation with the United States Information Agency as a diplomatic tool, The Family Of Man celebrates those things that unite us, not the petty divisions amplified by journalists and other mischief makers. It is an inventory of births, deaths, weddings, rituals, weddings, wars, discoveries, and delights. It is a miraculous catalogue on the phenomenon of being human.
Over the years, the optimistic message of Family Of Man fell victim to the ironic detachment and busted ideals of several generations of hipper-than-thou cynics, some criticizing it as a Pollyanna-ish vision of mankind, others saying that it rendered many individual photographers faceless by jumbling all their work together. In fact, all photos in the exhibit are captioned with their creator’s name as well as his/her nation of origin. And as for hope being the antithesis of honest art…well, if you hold that belief, you’re wasting your time here.
Over sixty years later, The Family Of Man remains one of the towering achievements of art and journalist photography, reassembled now in its original presentation format at Clervaux Castle in Steichen’s home country of Luxembourg. Art must be about raising us up, even as we use it to remain mindful of how far we have to come as a race. But I will always, always vote on the side of hope, as Edward Steichen did. The Family Of Man is neither sugar-coated nor bleak. It is both imperfect and filled with potential, as we ourselves are. And its credo, as stated in 1955, remains a lesson for anyone trying to use a camera to chronicle the human condition:
“There is only one man in the world and his name is All Men.There is only one women in the world and her name is All Women.There is only one child in the world and the child’s name is All Children.”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE THINGS I OCCASIONALLY MISS ABOUT WORKING WITH PRIMITIVE CAMERAS is that the terms of success and failure are so stark. As Yoda says, you either do or do not…there is no “try”. If you have a limited piece of gear, it will always be capable (or incapable) of exactly the same things. That argument is settled, and so you have to find good pictures where they naturally occur….truly thinking outside (or without) the box.
The fact that you will get little or no extra help from the camera is initially limiting, but also, in a strange way, freeing.
On the other hand, the better your equipment, the more opportunities you have to counter iffy lighting conditions in your subjects. Photography today is about almost never having to say, “I couldn’t get the shot”…..at least not because of a lack of sufficient light. It’s just one more imperfect thing that shooting on full auto “protects” you from. But the argument could be made that ultra-smart cameras give you an output that, over time, can be stunningly average. The camera is making so many decisions of its own, in comparison to your measly little button flick, that every shot you “take” is pushing you further and further away from assuming active control of what happens.
Hunting for images that you could capture with virtually no “help” from your camera is a more active process, since it involves planning. It means looking for pictures that your camera may not be able to grab without your specific input. And one great way is to shoot images that don’t matter in themselves, so that you are letting the light, and not the subject, be the entire story. That, and shooting on manual.
Back yards are great because they are convenient stages for light tracking. You can see the light conditions shift over the course of an entire day. Better still, it’s familiar territory that can only become more familiar, since it’s so close at hand, and available anytime. Since you will have more “what am I gonna shoot?” days than “amazing” days over a lifetime, fill them up by giving yourself a seminar in “this is what the light does”. Believe me, something worth keeping will happen.
Early morning, just after dawn, is the best time to work, because the minute-to-minute changes are so markedly unique. Wait too long and you lose your window. Or maybe you’re there in just another few minutes, when something just as good may present itself. I also like to work early because, living in the desert, I will have hours and hours of harsh, untamed light every day unless I plan ahead. It’s just too retina-roastingly bright, too much of the time.
Edward Steichen taught himself light dynamics by spending months shooting the same object in the same setting. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of frames where nothing changed but the light. He put in the time taking scads of images he knew he would never use, just to give him a fuller understanding of how many ways there were to render an object. He benefited, zillions of frames later, when he applied that knowledge to subjects that did matter.
The greatest photographer of the 20th century became “that guy” because he was willing to take more misses than anyone else in the game, in order to get a higher yield of hits down the road.
Shooting just for a better understanding of light is the best photo school there is, and it’s cheap and easy in the digital age. No chemicals, no glass plates, nothing in the way but yourself and what you are willing to try.
I like the odds.
(follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye)
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By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE IMAGES SIT AT THE BOTTOM OF THE BRAIN, LIKE STONE PILLARS IN THE FOUNDATION OF AN IMMENSE TOWER.The structures erected on top of them, those images we ourselves have fashioned in memory of these foundations, dictate the height and breadth of our own creative edifices. Between these elemental pictures and what we build on top of them, we derive a visual style of our own.
In my own case,many of the pillars that hold up my own house of photography come from a single man.
Edward Steichen is arguably the greatest photographer in history. If that seems like hyperbole, I would humbly suggest that you take a reasonable period of time, say, oh, twenty years or so, just to lightly skim the breadth of his amazing career….from revealing portraits to iconic product shots to nature photography to street journalism and half a dozen other key areas that comprise our collective craft of light writing. His work spans the distance from wet glass plates to color film, from the Edwardian era to the 1960’s, from photography as an insecure imitation of painting to its arrival as a distinct and unique art form in its own right.
At the start of the 20th century, Steichen co-sponsored many of the world’s first formal photographic galleries, and was a major contributor to Camera Work, the first serious magazine dedicated wholly to photography. He ended his career as the creator of the legendary Family Of Man, created in the early 1950’s and still the most celebrated collection of global images ever mounted anywhere on earth. He is, simply, the Moses of photography, towering above many lesser giants whose best work amounts to only a fraction of his own prodigious output.
Which is why I sometimes see fragments of what he saw when I view a subject. I can’t see with his clarity, but through the milky lens of my own vision I sometime detect a flashing speck of what he knew on a much larger scale, decades before. The image at left recently rocketed to my mind’s eye several weeks ago, as I was framing shots inside a large government building in Ohio.In 1921, Steichen journeyed to Greece to use the world’s oldest civilization basically as a prop for portraits of Isadora Duncan, then in the forefront of American avant-garde dance. Framing her at the bottom of an immense arch in the ruins of the Parthenon, he made her appear majestic and minute at the same time, both minimized and deified by the huge proportions in the frame. It is one of the most beautiful compositions I have ever seen, and I urge you to click the Flickr link at the end of this post for a slightly larger view of it. (Also note the link to a great overview of Steichen’s life on Wikipedia.)
In framing a similarly tall arch leading into the rotunda of the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, I didn’t have a human figure to work with, but I wanted to show the building as a series of major and minor access cavities, in, around, under and through one of its arched entrance to the central lobby. I kept having to back up and step down to get at least a partial view of the rotunda and the arch at the opposite end of the open space included in the frame, which created a kind of left and right bracket for the shot, now flanked by a pair of staircases. Given the overcast sky meekly leaking grey light into the rotunda’s glass cupola, most of the building was shrouded in shadow, so a handheld shot with sufficient depth of field was going to call for jacked-up ISO, and the attendant grungy texture that remains in the darker parts of the shot. But at least I walked away with something.
What kind of something? There is no”object” to the image, no story being told, and sadly, no dancing muse to immortalize. Just an arrangement of color and shape that hit me in some kind of emotional way. That and Steichen, that foundational pillar, calling up to me from the basement:
“Just take the shot.”
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