By MICHAEL PERKINS
A Failed Harvest.
The Fish That Got Away.
I Had It, But I Lost It.
Mistakes Were Made.
However you term episodes of photographic failure…..I mean, complete, utter freaking camera-borne defeat, two things are true.
It does happen.
And it will happen to you.
Not that many of us want to admit it, mind you. In an age in which, on any given photo day, we almost always bring back some kind of technically complete image, it’s easy to confuse any product with a successful one. Yeah, it’s a picture. But that doesn’t make it a good picture.
In the old days, there were was a more dramatic line between success and failure, since failure usually meant no picture at all. Underexposed, unrecognizable blobs. Masses of color that, coherence-wise, added up to nothing. Not so in our current era, in which it’s much more likely that the resulting image is, for lack of a better term, usable. Factor in increasingly facile repair tools and editing processes, and that number of “acceptables” climbs even further.
But you know when a picture has what it takes, and to what extent you’ve bent the rules of editorial judegment with one, even going so far as to talking yourself into thinking it’s better than it really is. That’s the seductive power of digital, in that it brings even our worst work close to the passable mark, making it harder to disown our “kids” than it was in the day when a lousy picture was more irretrievably bad, that is, beyond intervention. But it’s our very ability to intervene that can convince us that the shot was worth intervening over, and that’s frequently just not true.
And so there will be bupkis days. We walk out boldly. We are equipped. We are artistically hungry. We are experienced and trained. We know what we want.
And yet we bring back nothing.
Never forget that the ability to know that you missed the mark (even mightily) is the most valuable skill you will ever develop as a photographer. The strength to say “no” to yourself evolves slowly. In some of us, it never evolves at all. But we should thank Camera God for it, and, by extension, thank the same God for the demonstrably bad photos we are likely to make from time to time. Because if we can’t tell excellent from excrement in our own work, the game really is up. That’s why I am always banging on about loving your mistakes, because finally, they are your best teachers. It ain’t fun to be around them, but, then again, as you recall your most astute mentors, how many of them were a groove to hang with? Whatever. For photography’s sake, we all need to become comfortable with dumping the occasional day’s work in the garbage. Because nothing converts garbage into gorgeous other than hard, unsentimental work. There never has been any other shortcut and there never will be. Or to frame it in food terms (and eventually I always do), consider software and such as sauce. It’s tasty, but it ain’t no substitute for steak.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
DICKENS‘ A CHRISTMAS CAROL IS OFTEN REGARDED as a ghost story, and a marvelous and chilling one it certainly is. But because its lessons are couched in the colors and echoes of the most wonderful time of the year, the tale of Scrooge’s regeneration also acts on the heart like a series of photographs. It freezes time and invites us to re-inhabit that which has so fleetingly danced by our life lenses. Instead of weeping for what we’ve lost, we smile over what we’ve lived.
There is a reason that Christmas and photography forged such a natural bond. Both deal in retrieval, the summoning of shadows for Just One More Look. Aided by images, we call dear ones back from the beyond for a final embrace, a warm wince of recognition. Remember how handsome he was? Do you recall the day when she got that dress? Oh, there’s the baby.
Time it was, and what a time it was………
No one had to teach the world the value of all those little tintype testimonies when it came to the holidays. Everyone instinctively got the connection between the inexorable march of years and the value of stealing back just a taste of them with the snap of a shutter. Scrooge had his spirits to remind him of the man he had been and the man he still might be. They were his snapshots. His renewed realization of what had been wonderful in his life was his photo album.
Today, still, when someone is privileged to head home for a few days, we wish them well in several ways. Have a safe trip, we say. Give everyone my love, we say.
And then the inevitable tag line.
Take lots of pictures.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S NOW OFFICIALLY BEEN “A WHILE” since I last did a group thanks/welcome to the many of you who’ve joined The Normal Eye in recent months. I apologize for the lapse in manners, and assure you that, while I usually use the right spoon for soup and cross only at the light, I still haven’t gotten around to getting my 1987 Christmas cards sent out. It’s a process.
So, assuming that a particular post has recently motivated you to subscribe to this here small-town newspaper, thank you. And, as a way of demonstrating what to expect from us on a day-to-day basis, here’s a little backstory on TNE:
I wanted to create this forum because I feared, at the beginning of the digital age, that photography was becoming a reflexive act, a kind of knee-jerk spasm made ever more convenient but also more robotic due to amazing technical advancements that were almost literally taking the pictures for us. For sure, much of the muss and fuss of film was going away (a net gain), but the incredible foolproof–ness of even the most basic digital cameras was making speed and ease bigger considerations than the skills of seeing and planning, the most valuable traits of the slower, analog world…. a net loss, it seemed to me, for photography as an art.
Now to be clear, this platform is not, and has never claimed to be, a technical tutorial, and indeed the percentage of how-to advice we feature has always lagged way behind the why do it stuff. The Normal Eye is an examination of motivations, a way of restoring the human eye to its primary role in how pictures are made…..of normalizing it (hence the name). The eye outranks equipment, formats, subject matter, even formal training. With the eye, you can master your message with a cardboard box and a pinhole: without it, you won’t get your image made with an army of Leicas.
Happily, in the intervening years, the tide in all phases of photography has begun to turn back toward the instinctual, with amazing work by the world’s shooters that is once again placing technology in the service of the imagination. From the Lomography and Lensbaby revolutions to the resurgence of all-manual “art lenses” to a re-evaluation of (and partial return to) film, the art in photography is reasserting itself. Certainly no one answer works for everyone, but the questions are getting better.
So that’s what you signed up for: a conversation, a confrontation, a refusal to think of any single method or approach as “final” or “definitive”…..a promise to yourself to make pictures on purpose, with eyes wide open.
Thanks for joining the party.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT SEEMS ODD to hear someone refer to part of their photographic output as “abstract”…..as if the rest of their work somehow isn’t. I guess it depends on what you believe the word ” abstract” means, as well as what is meant by other words like, say, “reality”. For me , the whole discussion seems overthought. To my mind, all photography, all art is “abstract”.
To abstract something is to extract it from its original context, to re-frame it, take it from one form and paste it into another. And there is no way not to do that with a photograph. We don’t show reality. We show shards, fragments, selectively sliced slivers of time. Even if we take great care to take a no-frills, documentary approach to the recording of an image, once we click the shutter, we have abstracted that moment from reality, making an editorial choice to pluck away this instant versus all others.
One way to illustrate this process is to consider the image at the top of the page, which represents a virtually endless chain of abstraction. Thinking backwards from this photo of a museum exhibit:
In the beginning, God creates man, an abstraction of himself. Then Michelangelo creates an abstraction of God (and a lot of other Biblical superstars) by depicting Him in the act of creation, even as he (the painter) is also abstracting representations of the Creator’s creatures. Centuries later, art historians take selective pictures of Michelangelo’s massive abstractions on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, abstracting them further by using selected excerpts as book illustrations. Inspired by those books, curators in Manhattan create an exhibit honoring Michelangelo’s ceiling by reproducing it as a miniature, assembling a replica composed of dozens of backlit transparencies suspended over guests at the Metropolitan museum in an artificial abstraction of the original Sistine frescoes. Finally, using a selective-focus art lens in 2017, I abstract those same guests to blobby smears of color and make editorial choices about which single panel in the faux-ceiling exhibit to shoot in sharp focus, thus hinting that it’s somehow more important than all the others.
Photographs snatch away parts of the real. To use a camera is to abstract that reality. Every snap of the shutter is a calculation of choice. Therefore choose wisely.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
BIRTHDAYS. Glibly speaking, ya can’t live without ’em.
Thing is, after a while they don’t come alone. More and more, they show up accompanied by echoes. Ghosts. Remains and remnants. And the guest lists of Things That Were that trundle alongside all those birthdays often focus on buildings, structures that are barometers of where we started out and where we wound up.
The image above was taken within days of this year’s natal anniversary, and put me in mind of one of the most eloquent musings ever on the subject of loss from singer–songwriter Judy Collins. Looking at this sad, sagging house, I could clearly hear her singing:
My grandmother’s house is still there, but it isn’t the same
A plain wooden cottage, a patch of brown lawn
And a fence that hangs standing and sighing in the Seattle rain
I drive by with strangers and wish they could see what I see
A tangle of summer birds flying in sunlight
A forest of lilies, an orchard of apricot trees
Secret gardens of the heart
Where the flowers bloom forever
I see you shining through the night
In the ice and snow of winter
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU GOTTA LOVE HUMANS.
No really, you need to. Not ’cause we deserve it, God knows (she does), but because, if you view us from the vantage point of an emotionally detached galactic being, we have some adorable habits. Our fashion decisions? Laughable enough to be endearing. Our life choices? Pathetically cute. And our compulsive habit of compiling “best of” lists of our work at the end of each year?
Well, okay, that is rather obnoxious.
But the lists persist, if, by the word “persists” you mean they are crammed into every molecule of available space in the final columns, blogs, newscasts, sermons and recipes of the entire last month of each and every calendar year. Reason tells us that there is someone, somewhere, whom, this very instant, is compiling a list of the year’s best ” best of” lists. You know that’s totally happening.
Of course, photographers are no less given to this vanity exercise than anyone else in public life, and I myself have certainly succumbed to the annual temptation to round up the usual suspects from the previous twelve months. What has changed over the years, however, is my belief that I am in any position to even know what my own best work is. What I think I do feel comfortable doing is to make, instead of a ” best of”, what I call a “most of” list…..collecting shots which yielded most of what I was seeking in a particular image, regardless of its precision or formal technique. Those choices are viewable by clicking the new “seventeen for 17” menu tab, found, starting today, at the top of this page.
This means that some of these very subjective “keepers” are by no means the most technically accomplished photos I made this year, nor are they always the images that were best received, or even understood. What they do represent are the areas in which I most wanted to dabble, whether that dabbling resulted in wins or losses. If you always try to produce prize winners, your work somehow starts starving for oxygen. And I’d rather suck than suffocate.
So thanks in advance for viewing my most-ofs. They might also be my bests…….but how would I know?
Humans. Go figure.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ANY COMPLETE DISCUSSION OF THE LEGACY OF THE BEATLES‘ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, marking its fiftieth anniversary in 2017, will include voluminous analyses of its ground-breaking production technique and breakthrough approach to musical composition, and rightfully so. But this most fundamental of pop culture events of the 1960’s must also be thought of in purely visual terms, since many of us first encountered it as an amazing, challenging image.
In truth, the collaboration between Pop Art designer Peter Blake and studio photographer Michael Cooper, with its ad-hoc gathering of cardboard celebrities grouped around a gravesite with the word BEATLES spelled out in blossoms, is the first act of a two-act play. The cover set the same audacious terms of engagement that the record inside the sleeve would abide by: Art and Music are what we say they are: We, the Beatles, are in complete charge of our music, our image, and our connection with the audience: we will not have “a” style, but will hybridize whatever schools of thought come to hand, from modes of composition to instruments to shifting patterns of Past, Present, and Future to coloring outside the lines of even our own culture. I read the news, today, oh, boy, and it said there are no more rules: there are no more walls. The stage can no longer hold us. Only the studio itself is vast enough to contain what we have to say.
The cover of Sgt. Pepper made a stunning break with the accepted practices used by record labels to market their goods. Quite simply, the suits in the front office were no longer in charge of the pictures. And what of that picture, or, more accurately, that picture of pictures? Is it a tribute? A put-on? A serving of notice that the Beatles are dead, long live the Beatles? Yes, yes, and hell, yes. Pepper made it plain, once and for all, that album covers, which had begun in the 1930’s as basic advertising sleeves for the goods within, could be venerated, influential, and, yeah, framed on some freak’s wall. Like, you know, man, art.
And, if Cooper and Blake were drawing a line between eras for the record world, they were doing so to an even greater degree for photography, which, in 1967, was still considered by some as more craft than art. Within a few years after A Day In The Life‘s long, ringing super-chord, museums were mounting shows by Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Robert Frank, right alongside the painters, and directly adjacent to people like Warhol who constituted categories all their own.
Just as Alice In Wonderland is somehow legless without John Tenniel’s illustrations, Sgt. Pepper’s’ outside will always be wedded to its inside, and vice versa. As the most popular multimedia product in commercial history, it owes much of its titanic impact to the image of four oddly costumed men with four strangely new mustaches and one big message: there is more to us than meets the eye. Like the best of photography, the picture issues a challenge. Nothing is real.
And nothing to get hung about…….
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE INTERNET SCREECHED ITSELF HOARSE in 2016 when the Nobel Prize committee announced its intention to award one of its coveted awards for Literature to Bob Dylan, the first popular songwriter so honored. There were acrimonious screeds on both sides of the issue, as hands were wrung and garments were rent over whether Mr. D. was a poet or just a scribbler of post-beat pap. My initial reactions ranged from “really?” to, well, “really???“. But then I figured that, far from stretching the idea of “literature” too far, the Nobel gang hadn’t taken it far enough.
That is to say, it’s way past time for photographers to be invited onto the Nobel podium. As creators of visual literature.
Founded as an attempt by Alfred Nobel to expiate his guilt for having invented dynamite, the awards were designed to reward those whose work enriched or enlivened the human condition in the areas of chemistry, economics, physics, physiology/medicine, peace, and, yes, literature. As compared to the Pulitzer prize, which confers news value on both the printed word and photographic images, and is awarded for a singular piece of work within a single year, the Nobels are awarded for a body of work. With that standard in mind, it would actually be easier to judge the value of a photographer over a lifetime, versus the potential for a lucky or instinctual snap to be taken in the recording of a brief moment. But photography is a visual art, and a young one at that, and, even though no one still argues against its importance or impact, it is a sticky wicket to compel the powers that be to confer the “L-word” upon it.
Considering that the slight jump from literary poetry (Seamus Haney) to commercial song lyrics (Dylan) nearly caused Nobel critics to hemorrhage, proposing that photographs could also meet the definition of literature must sound, to some, like reciting dirty limericks during High Mass. Further, word “originalists” will point to the fact that literature is strictly defined as a written work of permanence. And yet it’s the permanence part that matters. Pictures have, in fact, changed arguments, minds and history, just as paintings have. And, if literature is that art which endures, something which defines the human experience, then a photograph is certainly as big an influence upon culture as a play or novel. A document is a document.
In accepting his Nobel prize, author John Steinbeck declared, “the writer is delegated to declare and celebrate man’s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit..for gallantry in defeat…for courage, compassion, and love.” Now go from the general to the specific, considering Steinbeck’s amazing chronicle of the Oakie odyssey of the 1930’s, The Grapes Of Wrath. As a contrast, how does Dorathea Lange’s picture Migrant Mother, with its graphic depiction of the dust bowl era’s desperation and despair, have any less impact than Steinbeck’s glowing account of the Joad family’s trek to California? In my estimation, both works magnify and certify what it means to stand tall in the blowing gale of ill fortune. And that is a literary idea.
Migrant Mother, like Grapes, is no mere “one-off”, but a small part of an enormous oeuvre, a vast portfolio filled with eloquent testimonies that delineate humanity. The Nobel has slowly begun to mature with the awarding of Bob Dylan’s literature award. Now it’s time to regard the visual arts as part of that larger, and widening discussion.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE ABILITY OF EVERY PHOTOGRAPHER, EVERYWHERE, TO INSTANTLY SHARE any part of his or her output with the world is both a blessing and curse. The “blessing” part’s easy to understand. Breaking down the barriers to publication of ideas that have separated us all from each other throughout time…well, that’s a very heady thing. Pictures can now transmit commentary at nearly the speed of thought, establishing linkages and narratives that have the potential to shape history.
Then there’s the “curse” part, in which this very same technology carries with it the potential for unlimited treachery and mischief. Who says what pictures can be seen…when, and by whom? Without supervisory curation or any kind of global uber-editor, photography can just be a visual torrent of garbage, or banality, or worse. Obviously, we have had to navigate some very tricky waters as both the blessing and curse elements of modern photography wrestle for supremacy.
What has happened for, good or ill, is that we are all, suddenly, tasked with being our own editors, asked to perform a skill that is very difficult to bring off with any honesty. You’d think that, after years of taking thousands of pictures, most of us would have a higher yield of excellence from all that work, but I have found that, at least for myself, the opposite is proving true. The more I shoot, the fewer of all those shots strike me as extraordinary. I thought that practice would indeed make perfect, or that, at least, I’d come closer to the mark more often, the more images I cranked off. But that hasn’t happened.
Your skills accelerate over time, certainly; but so do your standards. In fact, any really honest self-editing journey will mean you are less and less satisfied with the same pictures, today, that, just yesterday, you would have thought your best work. You start to refuse to cut certain marginal pictures a break; you stop grading yourself on the curve.
Most importantly, you have been doing this just long enough to realize how very long the journey to mastery will be. Not just control of the mechanics of a camera, although that certainly takes time. No, we’re talking about learning to tame the wild horse of one’s own undisciplined vision, something that, over a lifetime, is hardly begun. Our moon landings come to look to us like baby steps.
Becoming one’s own editor means that, through the years, you’re liable to view one of your “greatest hits” from yesteryear and be able, sadly, to see the huge gulf between what you were trying to do and what you actually accomplished. I was horrified, a few years ago, to learn that my father, at some point, had destroyed the paintings he had made when he was in college. I had grown up with those images and thought them powerful, but he only saw their shortcomings, and, at some time or other, it was just too much to bear. I often think of those paintings now, whenever I view an older picture that I once thought of as “my truth”. In some cases, I can’t see anything in them but the attempt. A few of them do survive the years with something genuine to say…but, ask me again tomorrow, and I may reluctantly transfer many of them over to the “nice try” pile. It’s an imperfect process, but it’s only one I trust.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN ONE OF LIFE’S GREAT IRONIES, YOU TRULY BECOME A PHOTOGRAPHER the first time you consider chucking all your gear off a cliff and never taking a picture again. Just as you can’t understand faith until you nearly lose it, you can’t really become an excellent maker of pictures unless you’ve been paralyzed, even a little frightened, in considering the distance between what you know and what you need to know.
All visual arts, all arts in general, really, are pursuits. We are chasing something, either in our work or in ourselves. Maybe both. We don’t always know what it is, but we sure as hell know what it’s not. Calling forth an image from a mix of instinct, experience and light seems like an easy thing, since there are so many cameras that deliver acceptable pictures with a minimum of effort. Unlike the early days of the medium, it’s no longer an uphill struggle technically getting “a” picture.
Ah, but getting “the” picture…that’s the work of a lifetime.
Sometimes, that challenge seems glorious. A crusade. Other times, it’s a slog. And, occasionally, the wandering between what you see in your head and what you can deliver in a given picture is exhausting, and you will sometimes want to stop. For good. Many do, and many more ache to.
The technical part of photography can certainly be taught, just as there is not that much to the mere mechanics of hitting a baseball or driving a car. Getting to the excellence, however, is daunting. And if you’re hung up on destinations, on “getting there”, realizing that it’s actually about the journey can be heartbreaking. You want to arrive at perfection, and you realize that you never can.
You have to learn to live on little glimpses of the prize, those flickers of wow when an image starts to take on its own life. That’s the payoff. Not praise, or publication, or a million “likes” on Instagram. Because it really doesn’t matter a damn what others think of your work. If you don’t love it, all the applause in the world just becomes noise. The pictures have to be there. For you. The wandering has to amount to something.
Once you learn to find fault in even your favorite brainchildren, you can father better ones going forward. Even better, once you know what your work looks like when you’re lost, the closer you are to being found. Eventually, photography is like anything else you can care passionately about. The fire carries you through when the progress won’t.
So hang on. There’s light up ahead.
Go catch it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF YOU REGULARLY POST IMAGES TO PHOTO SHARING SITES, you will no doubt have come upon groups or albums labeled S.O.O.C., or Straight Out Of The Camera, pictures that purport to have transitioned seamlessly from shutter click to social post without being further touched by human hands. The fact that such a designation even exists says something about how we see the creative process, or what we deem as “pure” about it.
The raw math of photography dictates that only a micro-percentage of your total work will actually come fully formed from your camera, emerging, as Athena did, intact from the forehead of Zeus. Rather, the majority of what we shoot is re-shot, re-thought, shaped, edited, and re-combined before we put a gold frame around it, which only makes sense. Photography is a process, not just a recording product. We grow into a better understanding of our best shots no less than our worst ones. That means that clinging to “straight out of the camera” as some kind of badge of excellence or ideal is counter-intuitive to the idea of photography as an organic art.
More simply, any so-called “perfect” pictures we create in the moment are a mixture of luck as well as talent, of chance as well as design. To slap a collective S.O.O.C. label on all such fortunate convergences of cosmic fortune is to think of that “flawlessness” as an end unto itself. Does the fact that you didn’t further mold an image after shooting it render it better, more authentic somehow, than one which was later manipulated or massaged? What gets the gold star, the best complete realization of a picture, regardless of the number of intermediate steps, or the bragging rights associated with blind luck? Case in point: in the above image, I did, indeed, get nearly everything I wanted out of the picture, but it was also the 15th frame I shot of the subject before I was even partly satisfied, so how “straight out” is that??
And what of the photographs that are less than “perfect” (according to whom?) from a technical standpoint? Can’t an underexposed or ill-focused shot contain real impact? Aren’t there a number of “balanced” exposures that are also as dull as dishwater? Moreover, can’t a shot be improved in its power after being re-interpreted in processing? The straight-out-of-the-camera designation is either meaningless, or sends completely the wrong message. Creativity seldom moves in a straight line, and almost never comes fully realized in its first form. Photography’s aim should never be to aim for an easy lay-up from mid-court, and labels that suggest that lucky is the same as eloquent do the art a disservice.
BY MICHAEL PERKINS
ONCE WE WERE ABLE TO CAPTURE LIGHT IN A BOX, in the earliest days of photography, there seemed to be a worldwide obsession with recording things before they could vanish. Painters might linger in a wistful sunset over a craggy shoreline, and certainly that was part of the photographer’s prerogative as well, but, immediately following the introduction of the first semi-portable cameras, there was a concurrent surge in the recording of the ancient world…temples, churches, monuments, pyramids, waterfalls, Africa, Asia, empires new and old.
The nineteenth century saw an explosion in the number of world tours available to at least the wealthy, as seen in The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain’s chronicling of a global excursion of Americans to the venerable ports of the old world. Cartes-de-visites (later post cards), stereoscopic views and leather-bound books of armchair photo anthologies sold in the millions, and the first great urban photographers like Eugene Atget began to “preserve” the vanishing elements of their world, from Paris to Athens, for posterity and, quite often, for profit.
This first-generation fever among shooters carried forth through two World Wars, the Great Depression, and into the journalistic coverage of revolutions and disasters seen in the present day. The photographer is aware that this is all going away, and that bearing witness to its disappearance is important. We can’t help but realize that the commonplace is on its way to becoming the rare, and eventually the extinct. We can’t know what things we regard as banal will eventually assume the importance of the contents of the pharaoh’s tombs. Ramses’ everyday toilet items become our priceless treasures. Now, however, instead of sealing up pieces of the world in pyramids, we imprison the light patterns of it, with history alone to judge its value.
Making pictures is taking measure of our world. It is our voice preserved for another time. This is what we looked like. This is what we thought was important. This shows the distance of our journey. New worlds are always crowding out old ones. Photography slows that process so we can see where one curtain comes down and another rises.