By MICHAEL PERKINS
“LOST IN THE WOODS”. “DEEP IN THE FOREST”…conjure your own phrase for the sensation of entering, and being swallowed by, dark, mysterious places. Realms of shadow, primordial laboratories in which both dreams and nightmares are brewed. In other words, sites where photographers can wax poetic. Or crash and burn.
Forested areas are both challenge and opportunity for shooters, since they are seldom subject to the same laws of composition or exposure as subjects shot out in the open. Mastering light in woodsy settings can be a crusade in its own right: details can melt into dark murk or be completely blown out in sudden shafts of sunlight. I have produced more mushy, indecipherable messes with more cameras in more forests than I care to count, in pictures which inadvertently produce more mystery than they reveal, as in “what’s this supposed to be?”
I can come a lot closer to coherence when I work with partial clearings rather than dense woods, working with simpler compositions that suggest the feel of the forest from its near edge rather than its center. Exposure becomes a more streamlined process as well.
Also, since the emphasis in such a shot is on mood rather than detail, even the basics of focus can become, well, negotiable, as seen here. But then, almost anything in the making of a photograph is. Or should be. My point being that, when the taking of a picture fails, it can be because the photographer is trying to execute too many things at once. Eliminating some of those things until the image becomes manageable can be, like walking out of a dark forest, a profound relief.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FEW OF US CAN CHANNEL FRANK SINATRA’S VOCAL ACUMEN, but we can all relate to the urban movies that he started running in the projection rooms of our minds. For most of his career, The Voice was a very visual actor, shaping sound into virtual landscapes of lonely towns, broken-hearted guys wandering the waterfront, and blue mornings where the sun rises on you and ….nobody else. Frank could smile, swagger, strut and swing, for sure, but he was the original king of desolate all-nighters, our tour guide to the dark center of the soul.
He was also, not coincidentally, a pretty good amateur photographer.
I tend to see restaurants, bars, and city streets in general through the filter of Sinatra’s urban myths. Tables covered with upturned chairs. The bartender giving the counter one more weary wipedown. Dim neon staining rain-soaked brick streets. Curling blue-grey wisps of cigarette smoke. And shadows that cover the forgotten in inky cloaks of protection. Give me eight bars of “One For My Baby” and I’m searching for at least one bar that looks like the last act in a Mamet play.
It becomes a kind of ongoing assignment for photographers. Find the place that strikes the mood. Show “lonely”. Depict “Over”. Do a portrait called “Broken-hearted Loser.” There are a million variations, and yet we all recognize a slice of every one. Like Frank, we’ve all been asked by the host if he can call us a cab. Like Frank, we’ve all wondered, sure, pal, but where do I go now?
It’s not often a pretty picture. But, with luck, it’s sometimes a pretty good picture.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AT A PARTY, THERE ARE DISTINCT ADVANTAGES TO NOT BEING AN “OFFICIAL” PHOTOGRAPHER. You could probably catalogue many of them yourself with no strain. Chief among the perks of being an amateur (can we get a better word for this?) is that you are the captain of your own fate. You shoot what you want, when you want. Your arrival on the scene is not telegraphed by stacks of accompanying cases, light fixtures, connecting cords or other spontaneity killers that are essential to someone who has been “assigned” to an event. Your very unimportance is your license to fly, your ticket to liberation. Termed honestly (if unkindly), your work just doesn’t matter to anyone else, and so it can mean everything to you. Yay.
One of the supreme kicks I derive from going to events with my wife is that I can make her forget I’m there. I mean, as a guy with a camera. She has the gift of being able to submerge completely into the social dynamics of wherever she is, so she is not thinking about when I may elect to sneak up and snap her. Believe me, when you live with a beautiful woman who also hates to have her picture taken, this is like hitting the trifecta at Del Mar. At 20 to 1.
Free from the constraints of being “on the job”, I enjoy a kind of invisibility at parties, since I use the fastest lenses I can and no flash, ever, ever, ever. I do not call attention to myself. I do not exhort people to smile or arrange them next to people that they may or may not be able to stand. The word “cheese” never leaves my lips. I take what the moment gives me, as that is often richer than anything I might concoct, anyway. Working with a DSLR is a little more conspicuous than the magical invisibility of a phone camera, which people totally ignore, but if I am cagey, I can work with an “official” camera and not be perceived as a threat. Again, with a woman who (a) looks great and (b) doesn’t like how she looks in pictures, this is nirvana.
Candid photography is all about the stealth. It’s not about warning or prepping people that, attention K-Mart shoppers, you’re about to have your picture took. The more you insert yourself into the process (look over here! big smiiiiile!) the more you interrupt the natural rhythm that you set out to capture. So stop working against yourself. Be a happy sneak thief. Like me.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS AN OLD ADVERTISING MAXIM that the first person to introduce a product to market becomes the “face” of all versions of that product forever, no matter who else enters as a competitor. Under this thinking, all soda generically becomes a Coke; all facial tissues are Kleenexes: and no matter who made your office copier, you use it to make…Xeroxes. The first way we encounter something often becomes the way we “see” it, maybe forever.
Photography is shorthand for what takes much longer to explain verbally, and sometimes the first way we visually present something “sticks” in our head, becoming the default image that “means” that thing. Architecture seems to send that signal with certain businesses, certainly. When I give you Doric columns and gargoyles, you are a lot likelier to think courthouse than doghouse. If I show you panes of reflective glass, large open spaces and stark light fixtures, you might sift through your memory for art gallery sooner than you would for hardware store. It’s just the mind’s convenient filing system for quickly identifying previous files, and it can be a great tool for your photography as well.
As a shooter, you can sell the idea of a type of space based on what your viewer expects it to look like, and that could mean that you shoot an understated or even tightly composed, partial view of it, secure in the knowledge that people’s collective memory will provide any missing data. Being sensitive to what the universally accepted icons of a thing are means you can abbreviate or abstract its presentation without worrying about losing impact.
Photography can be at its most effective when you can say more and more with less and less. You just have to know how much to pare away and still preserve the perception.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE BEST WAYS TO APPREHEND THE OVERALL DESIGN OF A SPACE, be it a midtown skyscraper or a suburban cathedral, is to see it the way the designer originally envisioned it; as a logical arrangement of spaces and shapes. Sometimes, viewing the layout of floors, lobbies, or courtyards from the top-down, or “bird’s-eye” view of the original design sketches is especially helpful, since it takes our eye far enough away from a thing to appreciate its overall conception. It’s also not a bad thing for a photographer to do when trying to capture common spaces in a new way. Move your camera, change your view, change the outcome of your images.
The overarching vision for a place can be lost at ground, or “worker bee” level, in the horizontal plane along which we walk and arrange our viewpoint. Processing our understanding of architecture laterally can only take us so far, but it almost seems too simple to suggest that we shift that processing just by changing where we stand. And yet you will invariably learn something compositionally different just by forcing yourself to visualize your subjects from another vantage point.
I’m not suggesting that the only way to shake up your way of seeing big things is to climb to the top floor and look down. Or descend to the basement and look up, for that matter. Sometimes it just means shooting a familiar thing from a fresh angle that effectively renders it unfamiliar, and therefore reinvents it to your eye. It can happen with a different lens, a change in the weather, a different time of day. The important thing is that we always ask ourselves, almost as a reflex, whether we have explored every conceivable way to interpret a given space.
Each fresh view of something re-orders its geometry in some way, and we have to resist the temptation to make much the same photographs of a thing that everyone else with a camera has always done. We’re not in the postcard business, so we’re not supposed to be in the business of assuring people with safe depictions of things, either. Photography is about developing a vision, then ripping it up, taping it back together out-of-order, shredding that, and assembling it anew, again and again. In a visual medium, any other approach will just make us lazy and make our art flat and dull.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN THE IMAGINARY PHOTOGRAPHY BOOKSHELF OF MY MIND THERE ARE HUNDREDS OF VOLUMES that speak of nothing else except the exquisite light of early morning, the so-called “golden hour” in which a certain rich warmth bathes all. You’ve read endless articles and posts on this as well, so nothing I can cite about the science or aesthetic aspects of it can add much. However, I think that there is a secondary benefit to shooting early in the day, and it speaks to human rhythm, a factor which creates opportunities for imaging every bit as vital as the quality of available light.
Cities and communities don’t jolt awake in one surge: they gently creep into life, with streets gradually taking on the staging that will define that day. The first signs could be the winking on of lights, or the slow, quiet shuffle of the first shift of cleaners, washers, trimmers and delivery workers. First light brings the photographer a special relationship with the world, as he/she has a very private audience with all the gears that will soon whirr and buzz into the overall noise of the day. You are witness to a different heartbeat of life, and the quieter pace informs your shooting choices, seeping into you in small increments like a light morning dew. You are almost literally forced to move slower, to think more deliberately, and that state always makes for better picture making.
Some atmospheres, like libraries or churches, retain this feel throughout the entire day, imposing a mood of silence (or at least contemplation) that is also conducive to a better thought process for photography, but in most settings, as the day wears on, the magic wears off. Early day is a distinctly different day from the one you’ll experience after 9am. It isn’t merely about light, and, once you learn to re-tune your inner radio for it, you can find yourself going back for more.
This is no mere poetic dreaminess. The more nuances you experience as a living, breathing human, the more you have to pour into your photography. Live fuller and you’ll shoot better. That’s why learning about technical things is no guarantee that you’ll ever do anything with a camera beyond a certain clinical “okay-ness”. On the other hand, we see dreamers who are a solid C+ on the tech stuff deliver A++ images because their soul is part of the workflow.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE PAINTER EDWARD HOPPER, ONE OF THE GREATEST CHRONICLERS OF THE ALIENATION OF MAN FROM HIS ENVIRONMENT, would have made an amazing street photographer. That he captured the essential loneliness of modern life with invented or arranged scenes makes his pictures no less real than if he had happened upon them naturally, armed with a camera. In fact, his work has been a stronger influence on my approach to making images of people than many actual photographers.
“Maybe I am not very human”, Hopper remarked, “what I wanted to do was to paint sunlight on the side of a house.” Indeed, many of his canvasses fairly glow with eerily golden colors, but, meanwhile, the interiors within which his actors reside could be defined by deep shadows, stark furnishings, and lost individuals who gaze out of windows at….what? The cities in his paintings are wide open, but his subjects invariably seem like prisoners. They are sealed in, sequestered away from each other, locked by little walls apart from every other little wall.
I occasionally see arrangements of people that suggest Hopper’s world to me. Recently, I was spending the day at an art museum which features a large food court. The area is open, breathable, inviting, and nothing like the group of people in the above image. For some reason, in this place, at this moment, this distinct group of people appear as a complete universe unto themselves, separate from the whole rest of humanity, related to each other not because they know each other but because they are such absolute strangers to each other, and maybe to themselves. I don’t understand why their world drew my eye. I only knew that I could not resist making a picture of this world, and I hoped I could transmit something of what I was seeing and feeling.
I don’t know if I got there, but it was a journey worth taking. I started out, like Hopper, merely chasing the light, but lingered, to try to articulate something very different.
Or as Hopper himself said, “It you could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint”.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE USED TO BE A MOVEMENT IN FINE ARTS CALLED THE “ASHCAN SCHOOL”, WHICH SOUGHT TO SHOW POWER AND BEAUTY in banal or even repellent urban realities. It posed a question that continues to stoke debate within photography to this day: how much should art engage with things that are horrible? Is the creative act vital when it shows us ugliness? More importantly, is it vital because it shows us these things? And, if we choose to depict beauty to the exclusion of the ugly, is our art somehow less authentic?
The whole matter may come down to whether you see photography as a constructed interpretation of the world, kind of a visual poem, or as a sort of journalism. Of course, the medium has been shown to be wide enough for either approach, and perhaps the best work comes from struggling to straddle both camps. A world of gumdrops and lollipops can be just as pretentious and empty as a world constructed exclusively of the grisly, and I think each image has to be defined or justified as a separate case. That said, finding a ying/yang balance between both views within a single image is rare.
Falling, as I did, under the influence of landscape photographers at a really early age, I have had to learn to search for a kind of rough ballet in things that I find disturbing. I’m not saying that it’s hampered my work: far from it. Look at it another way: as a missionary, you can plant crops and build hospitals for your village, but you still have to address the area’s cholera and dysentery. It’s just a part of its life.
The image above was pretty much placed right in my path the other day as I walked to enter an urban drugstore, and, as horrified as I was by the likely origin of this savage souvenir, I had to also acknowledge it as a Darwinian study of beauty and design. The virtually intact nature of the wing, contrasted with the brutal evidence of its detachment from its owner, made for an unusual transition from poetry to chaos within a single image. Many might ask, how could you make that picture? And it’s a hard question to answer. Another question that would be just as difficult to answer: how could I not?
Certainly, I won’t be entering this in Audubon magazine’s annual photo contest: it’s also no one’s idea of cutest kitty or beautiful baby. But it is one of the most unique combinations of sensation I have ever seen, and I did not want to forget it, nightmares and all. Because we live, and take pictures in, the world at large.
Not just the world we want.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOME OF THE BEST HUMAN INTEREST STORIES, EVEN WITH A CAMERA, CAN ONLY BE VIEWED INDIRECTLY. There are many cases in which even the best of us have to merely hint or suggest something about people that we clearly cannot show (or cannot show clearly). Maybe that intractable bit of visual mystery actually bonds us to our audiences, united as we are in speculation about what is beyond that wall or behind that door. The visual tease such photos provide are part of the art of making pictures, in that we are challenged to do more with less, and “show” something beyond the visible.
One of the simplest such stories to capture is very urban in nature: the last remaining nighttime lights in largely dormant buildings. Many of us have been the “last man standing” at the end of an extended work day. Others flee to engagements, family, dinner, but there we sit, chained to our desks until the report/project/research/budget is ready to be put to bed. There’s a readily identifiable feeling of loneliness, plus a little bit of martyr complex, that we can share in the plight of these unknown soldiers of the night.
Whenever I am driving through a city at night, I deliberately seek out those bluish, tube-lit warrens within the cubes and grids of otherwise featureless glass boxes. Who is there? What private eureka or oh, no moments are they experiencing? Which of a million potential dramas are being acted out, and with whom? The uncertainty, even from a photograph with little detail, sparks the imagination, and suddenly our viewers are completing the picture we were forced to deliver unfinished.
It’s the ongoing paradox of photography: what you don’t show is as vital as what you do show.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SPACE, BY ITSELF, DOESN’T SUGGEST ITSELF AS A PHOTOGRAPHIC SUBJECT, that is, unless it is measured against something else. Walls. Windows. Gates and Fences. Demarcations of any kind that allow you to work space compelling into compositions. Arrangements.
I don’t know why I personally find interesting images in the carving up of the spaces of our modern life, or why these subdivisions are sometimes even more interesting than what is contained inside them. For example, the floor layouts of museums, or their interior design frequently trumps the appeal of the exhibits displayed on its walls. Think about any show you may have seen within Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim museum, and you will a dramatic contrast between the building itself and nearly anything that has been hung in its galleries.
What I’m arguing for is the arrangement of space as a subject in itself. Certainly, when we photograph the houses of long-departed people, we sense something in the empty rooms they once occupied. There is fullness there inside the emptiness. Likewise, we shoot endless images of ancient ruins like the Roman Coliseum, places where there aren’t even four walls and a roof still standing. And yet the space is arresting.
In a more conventional sense, we often re-organize the space taken up by familiar objects, in our efforts to re-frame or re-contextualize the Empire State, The Eiffel, or the Grand Canyon. We re-order the space priorities to make compositions that are more personal, less popular post card.
And yet all this abstract thinking can make us twitch. We worry, still, that our pictures should be about something, should depict something in the documentary sense. But as painters concluded long ago, there is more to dealing with the world than merely recording its events. And, as photographers, we owe our audiences a chance to share in all the ways we see.
Subdivisions and all.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHO CAN SAY WHY SOMETHING CALLS OUT TO US VISUALLY? I have marveled at millions of moments that someone else has chosen to slice off, isolate, freeze and fixate on, moments that have, amazingly, passed something along to me in their photographic execution that I would never have slowed to see in the actual world. It’s the assist, the approach, if you will, of the photographer that makes the image compelling. It’s the context his or her eye imposes on bits of nature that make them memorable, even unforgettable.
It’s occurred to me more than once that, given the sheer glut of visual information that the current world assaults us with, the greatest thing a photographer can do is at least arrest some of it in its mad flight, slow time enough to make us see a fraction of what is racing out of our reach every second. I don’t honestly know what’s more fascinating; the things we manage to freeze for further consideration, or the monstrous ocean of visual data that is lost, constantly.
There’s a reason photography has become the world’s most loved, hated, trusted, feared, and treasured form of storytelling. For the first time in human history, these last few centuries have afforded us to catch at least a few of the butterflies of our fleeting existence, a finite harvest of the flurrying dust motes of time. It’s both fascinating and frustrating, but, like spellbound suckers at a magic show, we can’t look away, even when the messages are heartbreaking, or horrible.
We are light thieves, plunderers on a boundless treasure ship, witnesses.
Assistants to the seeing eye of the heart.
It’s a pretty good gig.
by MICHAEL PERKINS
VISUAL WONDERS, IN EVERY HOUR AND SEASON, ARE THE COMMON CURRENCY OF CALIFORNIA’S GRIFFITH OBSERVATORY. The setting for this marvelous facility, a breathtaking overlook of downtown Los Angeles, the Hollywood Hills, and the Pacific Ocean, will evoke a gasp from the most jaded traveler, and can frequently upstage the scientific wonders contained within its gleaming white Deco skin.
And when the light above the site’s vast expanse of sky fully asserts itself, that, photographically, trumps everything. For, at that moment, it doesn’t matter what you originally came to capture.
You’re going to want to be all about that light.
Upon my most recent visit to Griffith, the sky was dulled by a thick overcast and drenched by a slate-grey rain that had steadily dripped over the site since dawn. The walkways and common decks were nearly deserted throughout the day, chasing the park’s visitors inside since the opening of doors at noon. By around 3pm, a slow shift began, with stray shafts of sun beginning to seek fissures in the weakening cloud cover. Minute by minute, the dull puddles outside the telescope housing began to gleam; shadows tried to assert themselves beneath the umbrellas ringing the exterior of the cafeteria; the letters on the Hollywood sign started to warm like white embers; and people of all ages ventured slowly to the outside walkways.
By just after 5 in the afternoon, the pattern had moved into a new category altogether. As the overcast began to break and scatter, creating one diffuser of the remaining sunlight, the fading day applied its own atmospheric softening. The combination of these two filtrations created an electric glow of light that flickered between white hot and warm, bathing the surrounding hillsides with explosive pastels and sharp contrasts. For photographers along the park site, the light had undoubtably become THE STORY. Yes the buildings are pretty, yes the view is marvelous. But look what the light is doing.
Like everyone else, I knew I was living moment-to-moment in a temporary, irresistible miracle. The rhythm became click-and-hope, click-and-pray.
And smiles for souvenirs, emblazoned on the faces of a hundred newly-minted Gene Kellys.
“Siiingin’ in the rainnnn…”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT IS A SEASON OF LIGHT AND COLOR, perhaps one of the key times of the year for all things illuminated, burning, blazing and glowing. It is a time when opportunities for vivid and brilliant images explode from every corner.
And one way to unleash all that light is to manage darkness.
One example: your family Christmas tree involves more delicate detail, tradition and miniature charm than any other part of your home’s holiday decor, but it often loses impact in many snapshots, either blown out in on-camera flash or underlit with a few colored twinkles surrounded by a blob of piny silhouette.
How about a third approach: go ahead and turn off all the lights in the room except those on the tree, but set up a tripod and take a short time exposure.
It’s amazing how easy this simple trick will enhance the overall atmosphere. With the slightly slow exposure, the powerful tree LEDs have more than enough oomph to add a soft glow to the entire room, while acting as a multitude of tiny fill lights for the shaded crannies within the texture of the tree. Ornaments will be softly and partially lit, highlighting their design details and giving them a slightly dimensional pop.
In fact, the LED’s emit such strong light that you only want to make the exposure slow enough to register them. The above image was taken at 1/16 of a second, no longer, so the lights don’t have time to “burn in” and smear. And yes, some of you highly developed humanoids can hand-hold a shot steadily at that exposure, so see what works for you. You could also, of course, shoot wide open to f/1.8 if you have a prime lens, making things even easier, but you might run into focus problems at close range. You could also just jack up your ISO and shoot at a more manageable shutter speed, but in a darkened room you’re trading off for a lot of noise in the areas beyond the tree. Dealer’s choice.
Lights are a big part of the holidays, and mastery of light is the magic that delivers the mystery. Have fun.
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.
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.
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.
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 seems to be my mission in life to wait on a dog (Georgia O’Keeffe) (upmostimpawtance.wordpress.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AMERICA’S SOUTHWESTERN STATES COME EQUIPPED WITH SOME OF THE MOST SPECTACULAR SCENERY TO BE HAD ANYWHERE ON EARTH; jutting crags, yawning canyons, vast valleys, and more sky than you’ve ever seen anywhere. Photographically, the mountains, mesas and arroyos deliver on drama pretty much year-round, while the sky can be an endless expanse of, well, not much, really. Compositionally, this means rolling the horizon line in your framing pretty far toward the top, crowding out a fairly unbroken and featureless ocean of blue….except for more humid summer months, when cloud formations truly steal the scene.
It’s true: as the storm season (sometimes called the “monsoon”, for reasons that escape me) accompanies the year’s highest temperatures in desert regions, rolling, boiling billows of clouds add texture, drama, even a sense of scale to skies in Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and California. It’s like getting free props for whatever photographic theatre you care to stage, and it often makes sense to rotate your horizon line back toward the bottom of the frame to give the sky show top billing.
Early photographers often augmented the skies in their seascapes and mountain views by layering multiple glass negatives, one containing ground features, the other crammed with “decorator” clouds. The same effect was later achieved in the darkroom during the film era. Hey, any way you get to the finish line. Suffice it to say that the harvest of mile-high cloud banks is particularly high in the desert states’ summer seasons, and can fill the frame with enough impact to render everything else as filler.
I still marvel at the monochrome masterpiece by Life magazine’s Andreas Feininger, Texaco Station, Route 66, Seligman, Arizona, 1947, which allows the sky overhead to dwarf the photo’s actual subject, creating a marvelous feeling of both space and scale. I first saw this photo as a boy, and am not surprised to see it re-printed over the decades in every major anthology of Life’s all-time greatest images. It’s a one-image classroom, as all the best pictures always are. For more on Feininger’s singular gift for composition, click the “related articles” link below.
Big Sky country yields drama all along the America southwest. And all you really have to do is point.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.
- Photography Monograph (conordoylephoto.wordpress.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
INTELLECTUALLY, I KNOW THAT PHOTOGRAPHS DON’T NECESSARILY HAVE TO BE “ABOUT”, well, anything, but that doesn’t stop the 12-year-old photo newbie deep inside me from trying to produce images with “meaning” (yawn). Some reason to look. A subject. A story line. A deliberate arrangement of things for the purpose of communicating…something. Itchy and twitchy within my artist’s skin as I always am, I am never more out of my element than when I make a picture that is pure composition and form, a picture that has no reason to exist except that I wish it to.
As I get older, I get looser (no G.I. tract jokes about the elderly, please), and thus making what you might call “absolute” images gets easier. I just had to learn to give myself permission to do them. Unlike Atget, Brassai, and half a dozen early pioneering photographers, I don’t have to take pictures to earn my bread, so, if I capture something that no one else “gets” or likes, my children will not starve. Still, the act of making photographs that carry no narrative is far from native to me, and, if I live to be 125, I’ll probably learn to relax and really do something okay by about 93.
The process can be a head-scratcher.
The above image is an “absolute” of sorts, since I have no emotional investment whatever in the subject matter, and have nothing to reveal about it to anyone else. The arbitrary and somewhat sterile symmetry of this room, discovered during a random walk through a furniture store, just struck me, and I still cannot say why. Nor can I explain why it scores more views on Flickr over some of my more emotional work by a margin of roughly 500 to 1. A whole lot of people are seeing something in this frame, but I suspect that they are all experiencing something different. They each are likely taking vastly varied things from it, and maybe they are bringing something to it as well. Who knows what it is? Sense memory, a fondness for form or tone, maybe even a mystery that is vaguely posed and totally unresolved.
“Even though there are recognizable objects making up the arrangement, the result is completely abstract.There isn’t a “human” story to tell here, since this room has never been inhabited by humans, except for wandering browsers. It has no history; nothing wonderful or dreadful ever happened here. In fact, nothing of any kind ever happened here. It has to be form for its own sake; it has no context.
I liked what happened with the very huge amount of soft window light (just out of frame), and I thought it was best to render the room’s already muted tones in monochrome (it wasn’t a big leap). Other than that, it would be stupid to caption or explain anything within it. It is for bringers and takers, bless them, to confer meaning on it, if they can. As I said earlier, it’s always a little scary for me to let go of my overbrain when making a picture.
Then I remember this is supposed to be about feeling as well as thinking.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.
- First Critique (cohensrphotography.wordpress.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
BETTER MINDS THAN MINE have already taken note of the fact that 2013 marks the 100th anniversary of the penning of Joyce Kilmer’s poem Trees, a short bit of cozy verse which is either beloved sentiment or dreadful dreck, depending on which literary camp you pitch your tent in. I would have to confess that I find Kilmer’s ditty too cute by half, sort of the rhyming equivalent of a Thomas Kinkade painting, but, that said, faced with either the specious cause of “progress” or the faith it takes to plant trees, I side with the trees.
This particular better angel of my nature comes from observing
my father, to whom a connection between the soil and the soul is palpably real. If he were to assemble his version of The Avengers, he would sub out Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau and St. Francis for Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk, and Cap America. To watch him will twigs to vigorous life, or summon forth roses from wishes over the decades is to truly “get it”. He was Earth Day before Earth Day was cool. He was Rachel Carson in reverse drag.
So I have to pause for just a post’s-worth of mourning at the recent loss of two enormous palm trees from our place in Phoenix. These were not important trees in any grand sense; they afforded no shade, bore no fruit, marked no key battlefield. No children’s swings ever hung from their heights, and, as for sheltering purposes, they were little more than a beak sharpener for the neighborhood’s woodpecker.
The palms’ annual shower of spring litter had become a sore point between our team and the next neighbor over. What had, at lesser heights, been at least decorative additions to the yard had become, twenty years on, a pain in the astroturf. So down Thing One and Thing Two went, and, with them, one of my favorite visual elements in that part of the property. Going back through the foto files in the depths of the Perk Cave recently, I saw them taking a star turn, again and again, most notably as a skybound workout for our daring landscaper. He was part of the crew that eventually sliced, diced, and hauled them away, and with respect and admiration, his lofty Olympic feat is featured here.
So, even though I will never exactly be the Lorax, and even though I think Kilmer was a hack, I myself seldom see a “poem lovely as a tree”, and I still peer quizzically when its old hunk of skyspace seems deserted somehow.
I suddenly feel like planting something.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.
- “I think that I shall never see…”: Joyce Kilmer as War Poet (pietistschoolman.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE MAN’S DEDICATION IS ANOTHER MAN’S OBSESSION. Whether we view a person as passionately committed or someone who should just be, well, committed is largely a matter of perception. Nowhere is this truer than in the artistic world. Walk into any gallery, anywhere, and you will engage with at least one fixation on excellence that you believe is proof that grant money is dispensed far too freely. If this were not so, there would only be the need for one artist. The rest of us would be manning xerox machines. That’s why some people believe Thomas Kincade was a prophet, while other believe he was just, well, a profit.
Usually these debates are accompanied by too many beers, more than a few elevations in volume, and at least one person who gets his feelings hurt. Such is life, such is expression. We just guarantee your right to try it. We don’t guarantee anyone’s obligation to buy it.
Discussion of the new book That Tree by Mark Hirsch (due in August) will fuel many such lager-lubricated chats, and some of them will be heated, I’m sure. The book actually demonstrates two separate obsessions, er, passions. First, Hirsch, a professional photographer, wished to create a substantial project for which he would set aside his Top Gun-level camera gear and shoot exclusively with his new iPhone. Second, early on in the project, he took the dare/suggestion from a friend to limit his subject matter to a single tree, an unremarkable bur oak that he had passed, without noticing, daily for almost nineteen years.
Think about this, now.
Looking back over the subjects that I personally have been drawn to revisit time and again, I’m damned if I can find even one with enough visual gold to warrant mining it for 365 images. the closest two subjects would be a small restaurant in Scottsdale, Arizona called Zinc Bistro, and the campus of cliffside art galleries at the Getty Center above Los Angeles. And I have cranked out a ton of frames of both subjects, looking for a truth that may or may not be there to see…but not a year’s worth. I personally believe that I might conceivably be able to find that much mystery and beauty in my wife’s face….in fact, I shoot her as often as I can. However, long before a project of this scope could be completed, she would have taken out a contract on my life. True love will only take you so far.
I have got to see this book.
Mark Hirsch will either become my new synonym for Latest Photo God Almighty or another amusing asterisk in the broad sweep of imaging history.He will also provide strong talking points for those who champion the iPhone as a serious photographic instrument. For that alone, the book has value.
Either way, it ain’t gonna be boring.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.
- Photographer documents a year in the life of a tree on his iPhone (guardian.co.uk)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I’LL NEVER KNOW THE NAMES OF MANY OF THE PHOTOGRAPHERS THAT HAD THE GREATEST ROLES IN SHAPING MY EARLY WAY OF SEEING. The most important primary influences on my visual style in childhood weren’t the guys who received billing in the very public credits of Life, Look, or National Geographic, but the nameless freelancers whose work popped out of the small 3-d Kodachrome squares mounted in white cardboard View-Master reels. To this day, I can directly link the way I visualize images to VM’s crew of uncredited shooters, with their full-color highlight tours of everything from Yosemite to Notre Dame. Truly, from the first brown bakelite Model “D” viewer I received as a boy, through endless model variations over the next fifty years, I framed my own method for telling a picture story after the scenes in those little blue envelopes which bore the portentous legend, Seven More Wonders Of The World.
If you’ve been out of short pants for a while, you might not know that these little middle-tech stereoscopic beauties are still around, although just barely. View-Master has provided diversion and delight for three generations of devotees the world over, but the ride, billions of reels and zillions of memories later, might finally be crawling to a halt. More on that in a moment.
The co-invention of a photographer/tinker and a postcard salesman, View-Master cranked out its first rudimentary viewers and travel titles in 1939, more or less growing out of its appearance at the New York World’s Fair, where its souvenir views of “The World Of Tomorrow” made their debut. One of the earliest VM subjects was the then-new Boulder (later Hoover) Dam, setting the tone for the format’s explanatory “texts”, image descriptions short enough to make Tweets look encyclopedic, all crammed to fit inside the tiny caption window resting between your eyes. View-Master was largely an adult amusement for its first decade, catering to the armchair traveler with an endless catalogue of national parks, castles, cathedrals, and natural wonders, selling through a network of dealerships at camera shops and the souvenir stands at various travel attractions. Many of the format’s contributing scenic photographers also made some side money as VM sales agents, criss-crossing the country by car, shooting a little here, selling a little there.
By the early 50’s, View-Master grew from single-subject reels to three-reel packets and from travel images to its first children’s titles. Entering into a contract with Walt Disney studios, the VM format made a seismic shift toward youth fare with cartoon and TV shows, movies, even their own original fairy tale and nursery titles, shot with tiny clay figures arranged in their own miniature tabletop dioramas. And of course “the scenics”, as they were called, rolled on to chronicle many more World’s Fairs, canyons, mountains, parks, even NASA flights.
Depending on when you first encountered the format, View-Master was made either by Sawyers, GAF, Tyco, Fisher-Price, or Mattel, and the classic viewer was joined by projectors (2-D and 3-d), stereo cameras for making your own reels, “talking” viewers with internal phonographs to announce the captions, home “theatre” sets, storage cases and a slew of other short-and-long-term products.Now for the inevitable “passage of time” part: by the start of the 21st century, View-Master’s ancestral factory in Portland, Oregon closed its doors and production was moved to Mexico. And in 2013, there is, after sixty-four years, the clear possibility that the View-Master division of Mattel will be leased to a separate company, spun off like a despised stepchild, if not discontinued altogether.
Why the nostalgia? Because my whole orientation toward trying to tell a compelling, simple story in pictures, nurtured later by more famous photographers, cut its baby teeth on View-Master images: the composition, the angle, the way of leading the viewer’s eye into a frame and nailing it there….that’s all part of the “reel” world of my early, baby-sized eyes. There is no wasted space, no cute artiness in a View-Master image. It is all practical information, all shorthand communication. And even though the kiddie titles have long dominated the format’s output, there are, amazingly, still artists who create everything from complete tours of the Lewis & Clark expedition to edgy art exhibits with View-Master. And in a world that still embraces lo-tech imaging artifacts like plastic toy cameras and artificial “retro” platforms like Instagram, it seems that VM could still be an instrument for at least some kinds of photo expression.
Or, as with our tearful farewell to Kodachrome a few years back, we might, at least, cast a fond backward glance at the little box that gave us the world.
Seven wonders at a time.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY TIME MY WIFE AND I TRAVEL, A STRANGE PHENOMENON OCCURS. We will be standing on the exact same geographic coordinates, pointing separate cameras in generally the same general area. And, invariably when she gets her first look at the pictures I took on that day, I will hear the following:
Where was THAT? I don’t remember seeing that!? Where was I?
Of course, we see differently, as do any two shooters. Some things that are blaring red fire alarms to one of us are invisible, below the radar, to the other. And of course we are both right. And valid. Admittedly, I do seem to come back with more strange, off-to-the-side-of-the road oddities than Marian does, but that may be due more to my wildly spasmodic attention span than any real or rare “vision”. Lots of it comes because I consciously trying to overcome the numbing experience of driving in a car. I have to work harder to take notice of the unconventional when repeatedly tracking back and forth,day after day, down routine driving routes. Familiarity not only breeds contempt, it also fosters artificial blindness. The “outliers” within five miles of your own house should glow like fluorescent paint….but often they seem cloaked by a kind of habit-dulled camo.
Once detected, outliers don’t quite fit within their neighboring context. The last Victorian gingerbread home in a clutch of tract houses. The old local movie theatre reborn as a Baptist church. Or, in a place like Phoenix, Arizona, where urban development is not only unbridled but seemingly random, the rare “undeveloped” lot, crammed between more familiar symbols of sprawl.
The above image is such an outlier. It’s about an acre-and-a-half of wild trees bookended by a firehouse,
a row of ranch houses, and a busy four-lane street. Everything else on the block screams “settled turf”, while this strange stretch of twisted trunks looks like it was dropped in from some fairy realm. At least that’s what it says to me.
My first instinct in cases like this is to get out and shoot, attempting, as I go, to place the outlier in its own uncluttered context. Everything else around my “find” must be rendered visually irrelevant, since it adds nothing to the image, and, in fact, can diminish what I’m after. Sometimes I also tweak my own color mix, since natural hues also may not get my idea across.
Even after all this, I often find that there is no real revelation to be had, and I must chalk the entire thing up to practice. Occasionally, I come back with something to show my wife. And I know I have struck gold if the first thing out of her mouth is, “Where is THAT?”
To paraphrase the old proverb, behind every great man is a woman who rightfully asks, “Do you know what you’re doing?”
Sometimes I have an answer….
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE SURE THING ABOUT TAKING IN “THE SIGHTS” AT THE AVERAGE TOURIST ATTRACTION. You will be channeled, herded, if you will, toward exactly what the proprietors want you to see. This insures most people their coveted “Kodak Moment”, with Mom and the kids standing at the precisely picturesque sweet spot at the cathedral, the ruins, the monument, the mountain, etc. In fact, Kodak worked with parks for years to actually post signs near such perfect vistas, a polite way of yelling OVER HERE, STUPID at passersby. Thanks for the flash cards, guys.
Obviously this attempt to guide visitors to the “good stuff” can result in the occasional great image. But you and I know that, for the most part, it amounts to the completion of a homework assignment. You know, like the opposite of fun, spontaneity, um, photography.
Tomorrow, class, bring a picture of yourself standing in front of a famous landmark. And remember to smile.
I’m a big one for wandering away from the tour group….not so far as to wander aimlessly into a scary forest full of monsters, just far enough to take in the entire area while the guide drones on.
I’m not so much interested in what’s available to photograph as I am in what else is available to photograph.
Sometimes, of course, you are better off just taking your approved thirty seconds in front of the waterfall and moving on. Other times you hit something, sometimes by just looking thirty feet further.
Do I have an example? Thought you’d never ask…
There is an over-hyped old house-turned-souvie shop in La Jolla, California (one of the most gorgeous coastal towns in the west) that sits atop a subterranean cave which looks out onto the ocean. Once inside the shop, the able-boded (and those who do not suffer claustrophobia) pay to enter an extremely dark, steep, damp and cramped staircase that takes them down below the house to the cave.
Now, for a guy with a camera constantly hanging from his neck, taking anything like a usable shot in this crimped cavern is largely a crap shoot, since light is, let us say, at a premium. So the “officially” cool thing, was, for me, frustrating to say the least, and I trudged up The Staircase From Hell (my knees aren’t what they used to be) to re-enter the shop at the earth’s surface. So far, so pointless.
While my wife performed her mandatory inspection of the store’s copious supply of trinkets, I walked outside, then, instead of going back to the street, wandered around to the back of the building. Lucky choice. Suddenly I was in someone’s backyard, a hilly, curvy, strange little lot that could prove to be a nightmare for whatever neighborhood kid was doomed to cut the owner’s grass. It was only a matter of being curious enough to go about thirty feet off the official path….and yet here was the relief I wanted from chronic tour disease. An actual human habitation, complete with Hobbit-like stone landscaping and an extremely cool red scooter to counter-balance the rain-rich greens. Here was a picture I wanted. The “famous” view had shown me nothing. The “unimportant” view had given me everything.
Hey, I regularly get lost anyway. Why not have some fun doing it?
Now, where did my mommy go?
Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography. ——-George Eastman
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHEN I WAS ASSEMBLING THE FIRST COMPILATION OF MY OWN IMAGES, Juxtapositions, I felt a little awkward about captioning the photos in any way, since they were clearly the work of an unaccomplished amateur. In my native Catholic thinking, my default question was, who the hell did I think I was to pontificate on anything, hmm? Notice that, since you are presently reading the musings of the selfsame unaccomplished amateur, I obviously got over past that obstacle, but anyway…
Needing the book to have some kind of general structure or theme, I decided that, although my own wisdom may not be in demand, there were plenty of thoughts from the greats in the photographic field that were worth re-quoting, and which, correctly placed, might even illustrate or amplify what I was trying to say in my own photos. It was a way of channeling great minds and acknowledging that, pro or amateur, we all started off on the same journey with much the same aims.
Looking at the finished book, I noticed that the two most consistent subjects among the finest minds in photography were (1) light; how to harness it, how to serve it, shape it, seek its ability to frame or exalt a subject and (2) the importance of staying flexible, open, and able to embrace the moment.
Both objectives came into clear focus for me last week. A combination of early sunlight, dense foliage and thick morning fog came together in breathtaking patterns in the high canyon rim streets of Santa Barbara, California. Light was busting out wherever it could, coming through branches and boughs in soft shafts that lent an almost supernatural quality to objects even a few feet away, which, when suffused with this satiny mist, were themselves softened, even abstracted. If there was ever a delicate, temporary gift of light, this was it, and I was suddenly in a hurry, lest it run away from me. Any picture I failed to take in the moment was lost within minutes. Overthinking meant going home empty.
There was no time to carefully read the tyrannical histogram, since I knew it would disapprove of the flood of white that would throw some of my shots off the graph. Likewise I couldn’t “cover” myself by bracketing exposures, since there was so much territory to cover, so many images to attempt before the light could mutate into something else. I needed to be shooting, not fiddling.
Better to burn out than to rust out, as Neil Young famously said. One particular arch of overhanging branches called me. It looked like this:
I was, after all these years, back to complete instinct. Snap shot? Certainly. Snap judgement? Hope not.
I didn’t go home empty. And when I got home, a re-check of one of Ansel Adams’ quotes encouraged me:
Sometimes, I do get to places where God’s ready for somebody to click the shutter.
Look for the moment. Listen for God (sometimes he whispers).
And don’t forget to click.
- The 15 Most Popular Photography Tutorials from the 2nd Half of 2012 (digital-photography-school.com)
- What is photography? (bangladesh2u.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AMIDST THE CARNIVAL ATMOSPHERE OF MONTEREY, CALIFORNIA’S CANNERY ROW, IT IS A DRAB, ORDINARY THING, and, if you are not paying close attention, Ed Rickett’s original biological lab, tucked next to the towering Monterey Bay Aquarium, looks as if it is just waiting for the wrecking ball. In fact, it has escaped that fate several times over, much to the glory of this old industrial district, now scrubbed squeaky-clean to house Starbucks and other national chains within the substructures of what was once the beating heart of the California fishing industry. However, with a little closer look at the former headquarters of Rickett’s Pacific Biological Laboratories, you realize that it carries more history within its humble walls than most of the theme park dreck in the area that attempts to recall that era.
If Cannery Row is a salute to history, the House That Ed Built is history, and has been, luckily, left alone to tell its amazing story.
Edward Flanders Robb Ricketts, who found himself living and working in Pacific Grove, California in the early 1920’s after bouncing around the country as an Army medical corpsman, a dropout zoology student at the University of Chicago, and a travel writer, founded Pacific Biology Laboratories with a friend in 1922. The original lab was in Pacific Grove, a next-door neighborhood to Monterey, and was later relocated to Ocean View Boulevard in the heart of the bustling fisheries and processing plants of Cannery Row. Ricketts took consignment orders from researchers and museums for various life forms from the coastal tides in the region, commissions which made him a modest living and helped finance his own experiments. By 1930, with his reputation fairly established, he met an up-and-coming author from the area named John Steinbeck. The two became lifelong friends.
The PBL lab, with holding tanks around the bank for storing specimens (still viewable today), was nearly destroyed in 1936, when a fire consumed the neighboring Del Mar cannery (now the site of the world-class Monterey Bay aquarium). Steinbeck, stepping in to purchase a half-interest in Ed’s lab, financed its rebuilding (and helped keep a roof over his friend’s head).Saved from the flames was Rickett’s career-defining work, Between Pacific Tides, the manuscript for which had been sent ahead to his publisher before the blaze.
In 1940, following one of many messy breakups with the various women in his life, Ed decided to take a road trip to Mexico and pay for it by researching and writing a new book on marine life. Steinbeck, looking to escape some of the controversy that dogged him following the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, decided to partner with Ricketts on the project.The result, Log From The Sea of Cortez, one of Steinbeck’s only works of non-fiction, became a solid reference work in the field of marine biology.
Writing his novel Cannery Row in 1945, Steinbeck modeled his marine biologist character “Doc” on Ricketts, fictionalizing the PBL as “Western Biological Laboratory” and keeping the spirit of Ed’s place as a gathering (and drinking) point for writers and artists. Following Rickett’s death in 1948 (he was hit by a train carrying Del Monte canned fish through the area!), friends bought the place, keeping it as a kind of clubhouse until 1983, when they sold it to the city of Monterey. The budding Cannery Row Foundation, then just getting underway with a renovation of the area, saw to the restoration of the building, which now is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Specimens Ed gathered from the tidal pools have, for decades, graced collections at Harvard, the American Museum of Natural History, Lund University in Sweden, and dozens of other places the world over. Now the place his work began is itself a specimen.
Cheesy retail and chain restaurants have blotted out a lot of the physical history of Cannery Row, leaving Pacific Biological Laboratories as one of the only authentic visual legacies of one of America’s most storied industrial centers. As such, it’s always worth an extra (and loving) look.
(Here’s a great link from the Museum of Monterey with a wonderful overview of Ed’s life: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=obz6BdAtgIk )