By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE END OF A DECADE is often used as an arbitrarily mile marker to measure the effects of a particular parcel of time. The requisite lists of “bests” “biggests” and “top” accomplishments or events, trotted out in an attempt to define an era, are as irresistible as they are meaningless. The appeal is understandable: people, including photographers, love trying to make sense of something, especially their own work. But ranking one thing as better than another is not nearly as important as noting contrasts in one’s output over time. Simply put, we produce different work at different periods because we are actually different people.
Looking at my own stuff between 2009 and 2019, I can see several shifts in emphasis that have shaped the way I make pictures today. For example, over that period, I re-embraced prime, or single focal-length lenses, which had been a fundamental part of my film years but which temporarily got supplanted by the first kit lenses and moderate zooms of the digital era. I also came to greatly reduce my use of ultra-wide angle glass, settling on 24mm as about as wide a frame as I would ever shoot. Also, after flirting with auto and semi-auto shooting modes with my first DSLRs, I resumed another old school habit, that of shooting on full manual. Along with millions of others, I saw my work with cel phone cameras evolve from “just in case” or “emergency” shots to images that I would purposefully plan, preferring some of the results over those from my “real” cameras. And, overall, I tried to stop just short of a full-on minimalist approach to gear, trying to do more and more with less and less. That meant eschewing flash almost completely, and choosing in-camera technique over post-processing whenever possible. For me, the real magic still happens inside the box, one momentary impulse at a time.
The biggest change for me over the last ten years, however, was far more fundamental, as I seem to have completely reprioritized what I look for in an “acceptable” picture. As the decade began, aware as I was of the contrast limits of the first digital sensors, I sought a way to rescue every single iota of detail from the darker portions of my pictures, even as I accented sharpness and focus with near-religious zeal. That led me to work heavily with the HDR platform Photomatix, taking multiple exposures of single subjects which were then blended to amp up every grain of sand and woodgrain. The pictures looked dramatic in their “equalizing” of all tones, from dark to light, but which could often result in an over-cooked, glowing surreality. A slightly more restrained 2011 example of my HDR “period” is shown above.
By contrast, around the middle of the decade, I began to value subjects for a different kind of narrative impact, things that were allowed to be softer or even selectively underexposed. In a sense, I started to regard sharpness and focus as negotiable for certain pictures, not merely allowing backgrounds to fuzz out in contrast to foregrounds, but using Lensbaby and other “art” lenses to select things within a single foreground plane that could be softened in reference to others in that same plane…assigning additional focus priorities within the overall focus strategy. An example of this approach is seen here, in a crowded San Francisco street scene from earlier this year.
Over the last ten years, my images, especially the urban scenes, have gradually taken on a looser look, a more dreamy, if less “realistic” aspect. These new pictures are not just “captures” of things that pass in front of me, nor are sharpness and perfect exposure the only objective in photographing them. Instead, I like to hope that their non-specific quality will invite a more interpretive look from the viewer. Since everything isn’t spelled out or recorded in such photographs, there’s breathing room in them for anyone to supply his or her own detail (or not). I don’t always produce pictures like this now, but I am far more open to the idea of relinquishing control than I was ten years ago. Progress? Who knows? End-of-decade lists don’t really make a statement about “better” or “worse”. They are only reflections that, as the mind is always in flux, so, too, must any products of that mind be.
Happy New Year.
Happy New Pictures.
Happy New Adventures.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOME PHOTOGRAPHIC OPPORTUNITIES, by virtue of being special or rare, pack more anxiety than others. A weekend of casual snaps, regardless of one’s advance preparation (or lack thereof), may not raise many hives on the average shooter. There is no great risk of losing or missing “something good” in such cases, and thus the experience is more relaxed, and may even yield great results, given the laid-back setting. Schedule the very same photographer, however, for an appointment with a unique attraction or a key personal gathering, and the stress levels can zoom. In this case, anything you can do to keep your anticipation from rocketing into panic should be tried. In short, something that has the potential to be The Greatest Place I Ever Visited or The Most Important Day Of My Life is no place to get to know your new camera.
I recently spoke with a woman whose upcoming trip to the Grand Canyon had her in a near state of hysteria, since she had never taken the time to really get to know her “real” camera, and yet felt she needed it to bring back “good” results. I asked if her camera was a gift or whether she had chosen it herself. The answer was somewhere in the middle, in that it had been “highly recommended” to her, which translates, to me, that someone beside herself had decided what kind of camera she needed. She was not just intimidated by the device itself: the idea of even opening the user’s manual was giving her blood pressure. This was a person in crisis, or at least in danger of ruining her vacation experience worrying about what she “should” be shooting with. Guess what her pictures might look like under such circumstances?
I suggested to her that she was not really “on speaking terms” with her camera, and that an important personal occasion was no time to spark up an initial conversation. She might not be able to “speak” to it about what she wanted, or what it could be expected to deliver, and, of course, the camera cannot speak or reason at all. I encouraged her to guarantee that she would return with usable and generally solid pictures by snapping everything on her phone, with which she did have a high degree of comfort. Obsessing about what your gear is doing in the moment kills the idea of your living in that moment, and that, in turn, kills pictures, as all spontaneity or experimental joy simply vanishes from the process. I assured her that her phone was perfectly capable of delivering fine images, and that, moreover, the way to attack a learning curve on an unfamiliar camera is to first shoot a lot of non-crucial things, pictures that “don’t matter”, in preparation for the important things you’ll snap after you and the camera are working as one. Her nervousness was also symptomatic of something you have no doubt seen yourself….the case of someone purchasing a “really good” camera that, however well designed, is a mismatch for how they shoot or (more to the point) how they wish to shoot. In such cases, people often buy a device that is too much camera for what they really want, then stick it in a closet and shoot with the camera they actually like. This can stem from the antique belief, long debunked but still mythically powerful, that sophisticated gear automatically produces great results. It’s crazy: we see millions of amazing pictures taken every day on very basic equipment, and still we associate great pics with complex cameras.
The lady in question went away from our chat happy (or so I believe), because she now had permission to do what she wanted to do anyway. She may, at some time, decide to immerse herself in the “training” of her other camera, but she may not, and that’s fine. In photography, you have to pick your battles, and one in which you should never engage is some kind of death struggle with your own equipment.
We have to remember who works for who.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE FIRST MASTERS OF PHOTOGRAPHY STRUGGLED with processes and tools that seemed to stack the deck against the chances that anyone would ever, ever create even a single photograph. Those first exposures, made with slow media and balky, uncertain lenses were not only works of art, but they were truly just plain, flat out work. I recently viewed a video demonstrating the bygone method known as photogravure, the means by which any “serious” photographic artist would render his work for critical approval in the late 19th-century. I was so utterly crushed by the sheer unforgiving precision needed to complete the process that I dropped to my needs and thanked the photo gods for giving me the luxury to merely….shoot. I felt at once lazy and liberated.
One thing these old exposure and processing systems did, however, is fix their visual aspects in time, so that, in our mental sorting process, we easily differentiate between the look of an 1850 wet-plate image and a 1950 Polaroid Land camera snapshot. Various periods in the methodological development of the art have their own distinct signatures. The strange thing is how, in the present era, we use apps and editing suites to summon those old ghost looks back into the present, mixing periods together like a cook throwing all his available ingredients into a garbage salad. We no longer give any thought to making something look old, or retro-old, or ironically old-ish. All times periods can exist in the same image, and whether they have any natural relation to each other is a moot point, if a point at all. We just do it because we can just do it.
In the above picture, for example, I’m merely playing, without any real object in mind. The master photograph on which this remix is based was taken two months ago (Summer 2019) at the main greenhouse building at Minneapolis’ Como Park. The structure’s classic design, complete with rounded cupolas and gently curving rooflines, reminded me of the immense halls that were erected in the 1800’s to house international expositions, industrial shows and world’s fairs, and so I took a fairly straightforward shot from a cell phone and cranked it through an app to evoke an echo of that time, a visual masquerade that mimics the tintype process, right down to its selective pinpoint focus and plate grain. Admittedly, the illusion is spoiled a bit, since the people in the picture are wearing shorts and t-shirts rather than bustles and straw boaters, but that’s not the point. I wasn’t trying, like some master art forger, to make you think this was a newly discovered artifact of the Victorian age. And while I might have been trying to comment on “how we used to think of the purpose of grand public spaces”, or how that contrasts with the public spaces we value now…..I wasn’t. I was just goofing off, using quick and amazing tools the way a child might take Mr. Potato Head’s nose and put it where his ear should be.
What is singular, however, is knowing that any part of photography can be harnessed or combined with every other part of photography at any time. That’s not a hot bulletin, but it is worth pointing out from time to time that, after centuries of innovation, our art is now, like Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, truly unstuck in time. Backwards, forwards, or right in the middle, what we shoot and where we stand are completely under our control.
THERE IS SO MUCH HUMANITY TO LOVE IN ANSEL ADAMS: his spectacular inventiveness: his infinite patience: his unquenchable curiosity….the sum total of traits that produced one of the most amazing bodies of work in the history of any creative medium. But being fully human, or, more accurately, fully a human artist, consists not merely in one’s strengths, not even for the man who, for most people, defines the very idea of photography. It also lies in the very human emotion of doubt….something Ansel knew about, and thought about, over the wide expanse of his astonishing career.
Adams filled a good-sized library shelf with scholarly works on how he did what he did, much of it as scientifically exquisite as anything from the pen of a Newton or a DaVinci. He knew more about the physics of picture-making than nearly any man alive. But he also wrote and taught about the things he didn’t know, the things that danced teasingly just beyond the edge of his skills. In journals, letters to friends, and interviews over decades, Ansel Adams returned to the subject he saw as his own Achilles heel, a mystery that haunted him until his dying day…the challenge of color photography.
“My own reaction to color photography is a mixed one”, Adams wrote in a 1957 article for Image magazine. “I accept its importance as a medium of communication and information. (But) I have yet to see….much less produce…a color photograph that fulfills my concepts of the objectives of art. It never seems to achieve that happy blend of perception and realization which we observe in the greatest black-and-white photography…”
Of course, Ansel certainly didn’t shy away from the challenge of color work, having made over 3,500 such images in addition to his prodigious output in monochrome. But while he knew the values and tonal gradations of black and white like he knew his ABCs, it was color that seemed to him somehow less “real”, or, to look at it another way, presented more of a challenge in getting the reality right. “Black and white is accepted as a stylized medium”, he wrote in an article on the emergence of Polaroid color film in 1962. “Values are intentionally accented or subdued….there is little or no “reality” in either the informational or expressive black-and-white image, and yet we have learned to interpret these values as meaningful and “real“.
Strangely, as his own career began to run in parallel with the emergence of the great national magazines of the mid-twentieth century, it was his color work which was in increasing demand, paying the bills and funding the projects in which he was more personally invested. More and more, Adams’s commissions for Eastman Kodak, the Land Corporation and other manufacturers was to act as a strong second stream of income, helping to bolster his reputation in the mass market even as he believed that color was distracting him from his serious work. Part of his ongoing disappointment was not so much in his own execution of color but in the loss of accuracy that seemed inevitable once he handed his images off to the decidedly limited printing technology of the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. Angry at the final results on the printed page, Ansel kept most of his color images out of circulation during his lifetime, always referring to them with a mixture of frustration and regret, or seeing them as mere economic means to an end. But that, too, is a very human thing for an artist to do, as is the doubt that drives those feelings.
Doubt is a test of faith, a challenge to lazy or easy habit. Feeling that even your best efforts have come up short is the petrol that fuels a creative mind, at least until you plunge into depression a la Van Gogh and start hacking your ears off. I never trust a creative person who hasn’t been tempted, at least once, to take his entire life’s work and toss it in the garbage. The fact that he doesn’t is where the genius part comes in, and Ansel Adams never was derailed by the fact that his reach was always going to exceed his grasp. And that is not only instructive but inspirational, more inspiring, even, than his photographs themselves. Because this thing we do is a journey and not a destination. If we’re hungry, if we’re honest, we have to realize that we’ll never get where we’re going. Ansel Adams, the photographer that made more people want to become photographers than perhaps any other person in history, wrote, near the end of his life that, although he had hidden most of his color images away, “I feel the urge now, and only wish I were sixty years younger!” Indeed, for any of us who’ve ever clicked a shutter, the doubts persist. But the spirit does, as well.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
COMPOSITION IN PHOTOGRAPHS IS NOT MERELY A MATTER of getting everything you want into the frame, whether your subject is crowded or stark. It’s about both the arrangement of objects or patterns in a given space and the relationships those things have with each other. It’s a process which often makes photography as frustrating as it is thrilling. Or maybe a more precise way to say it is, composition is the frustration you endure to get to the thrill.
Yeah, I like that a little better.
Part of the method of composition, in what is essentially a flat plane, is the arrangement of your subject in such a manner that it creates the illusion of depth, a kind of invitation to the eye to look further “in”. There have been entire libraries filled with references to these so-called “leading lines” such as the trail-off on the pier you see in this ocean view. Everyone mentions it because, well, goldarn it, for a cheap little trick, it works pretty well. This particular image is about as rudimentary an example of faux depth as you can find, but nailing it involves a lot of little things that are quite variable from one situation to another.
Ansel Adams once half-jokingly said photography was largely about knowing where to stand, and it’s still the best compositional advice I’ve ever heard. Certainly in the case of this photo, where I chose to stand (a decision I changed and re-changed across the space of several minutes) made a huge difference in how the depth effect displayed the picture’s information. I was originally walking toward the pier at beach level, at which angle the front-to-back view of the pier tended to emphasize the information most near at hand, with the rest of the pier dramatically foreshortened or “squished”, like the contracted bellows of an accordion, and objects at the far end of the pier greatly reduced in detail or prominence. Standing beside the pier rendered it as a long left-to-right line reminiscent of a snake or a train. Lots of detail but not much drama, and no practical way to show the entire structure.
Walking to the second-floor landing of a beach restaurant at the head of the pier, however, gave me a sensation of distance that appeared natural and yet was a little more dramatic, the lines of the pier converging as they reached the horizon, just like your ninth-grade mechanical drawing teacher taught you to do. But that’s the process of composition in a nutshell: a combined approach consisting of what to include and how to include it, or like Ansel says, knowing where to stand.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
This is important. This means something….
Roy Neary, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind
I HAVE NEVER TRIED TO SCULPT THE MASHED POTATOES FROM OUR NIGHTLY DINNER into a replica of Devil’s Tower, but, as a photographer, I have experienced plenty of Roy Neary “a-ha” moments, marveling as a seemingly bland tableau pops into something very, very different in my mind’s eye. It’s the transformational moment that, when it occurs, justifies all of the sit-and-wait and close-but-no-cigar moments associated with making pictures. It is so invigorating that it re-enlists the weariest of us for yet one more tour of duty. Even the chance for experiencing a Roy Neary moment, what I call the Dreyfus Reflex, will shore up our courage and refresh our dedication. Hey, magic happened that one other time, we say. It might happen again.
But learning to see creatively is not merely a matter of being willing to receive a visual message from the great beyond. Seeing is an exercise, no less than a push-up or a jumping jack. It’s a matter of perfecting yourself as a receptacle, as a kind of pipe through which ideas can flow freely. The pipe has to be constantly widened and re-opened, and the exercise of learning to see ensures that, once an idea is at the entry point to the pipe, its path is unobstructed. Thus, the photographic concept is not coming from you so much as it is flowing through you. Learning to see photographically means, then, being “open” to a perception that, without practice, might never become apparent, but which, having become so, urges a photograph.
It means, in a sense, getting out of your own way.
Going back to our Close Encounters metaphor, Roy doesn’t start out thinking his dinner spuds resemble a mountain top. He gradually learns to accommodate ideas that are so un-obvious to everyone else that he seems crazy. Effectively, Roy has become an artist, in that he can look at one thing and see something beyond its mere surface appearance. In that moment, he is every poet, every novelist, every painter, and, yes, every photographer who ever lived. Similarly, any subject matter, such as the stalk of wheat seen here, can take on endless new identities, once we’ve become comfortable with it being more than one thing, or one version of a thing.
I once had a friend tell me that his favorite compliment as a photographer occurred when he was comparing pictures that he and a friend had taken from the very same trip, passing by identical sites and locations. “Where did you see that??” his companion remarked, indicating that while the two men’s sets of eyes were physically pointed in many of the same directions. they had come away with vastly different impressions. Does this process make one set of pictures “better” than another? Certainly not. But it does illustrate that there is more than one level of seeing, so that, even if my friend were to visit all those places alone, on different days, very different things would emerge in the pictures from varying shoots. What accounts for this variance? The light and the subject could be made to match: the gear and its settings could be replicated: even the precise time of day could be re-created, and yet the pictures of the same things by the same person would probably contrast noticeably with each other. And knowing all of that, when you set out as a photographer, means you’re aware of, and eager to exploit, the Dreyfus Reflex. What you see is just the first step of the journey: how you see it determines where the journey will eventually lead.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I CALL IT “WINDOW SHOPPING“, the strange practice of taking random photographs while being driven through urban neighborhoods, usually in the back seat of an Uber, usually to or from a hotel or an airport. For any shooter who likes to engineer as much control as possible in their image-making (as is my own bias), cranking off shots out the side window of the back seat of a ride-share is the closest thing to complete chaos, and yet surprisingly exhilarating. It’s also good exercise for those occasional planned shoots in which you will need to react quickly, and hopefully with effect, under rapidly changing conditions.
The whole thing began for me several years ago with one of many trips I’ve made to and from New York, a place that, for a photographer, embraces both formal technique and shoot-from-the-hip spontaneity. I’ve had to teach myself to be more comfortable with the latter than the former, and so I have to regularly place myself in situations in which I’m forced to mentally shoot with, if you like, one hand tied behind my back. I have to make myself shoot looser and with less of a fear of loss-of-control situations. At some point, a boring cab ride to JFK gave me the perfect jumping-off point for such a project.
Think for a moment about how little I have to say about the conditions of this kind of shoot. The driver is taking me through neighborhoods I often know little about, so I can’t anticipate or plan. The speed of the vehicle, the smoothness of the ride, whether the “good stuff” is to the left or right of the car, and, certainly, when I’m about to behold anything with any potential all guarantee a kind of randomness. There are no warnings, no forecasts. Add to this that I will probably be shooting at full manual, meaning that, in addition to reacting in the moment to my subject and shooting conditions, I’m also throwing hundreds of frame-to-frame calculations about how to capture anything of value into the equation.
Not surprisingly, my yield is often 90% garbage, something that is also great for maintaining a sense of humility. However, the images that do work would never have been made at all had I not placed my precious precision in jeopardy. Thinking back to when I started, I, like many young photographers, disliked most of my pictures because there was always something I hadn’t understood, hadn’t planned for, didn’t yet know how to do. The paradox of this kind of machine-based expression is that you have to learn all the rules and then decide which ones you have no interest in following going forward. I often suspect that many younger shooters actually begin their careers at the opposite end of that continuum, starting at “what the hell” and eventually growing into more formalized technique. Doesn’t really matter. The important thing to remember is that both control and chaos can be useful, but they can both be imposters as well. A picture isn’t guaranteed to be wonderful because you cared and planned “enough”, and it certainly isn’t fated to be brilliant just because you cared so little. All roads don’t lead to Rome, but all roads also don’t lead away from it. From a window with shaky hands and a lousy Uber driver, or on solid, tripod-secure ground, you can be both the hero or the goat, given what’s happening between your ears.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY IS ABSTRACTION, our subjective representation of what we think things “really look like”…..operative word being “we”. But it’s also a process of extraction, of pulling a moment out of time’s flowing sequence and trapping it in amber. If life is a continuously unfurling roll of movie film, photographers specialize in stealing single frames of that reality, hoping we can make the argument that our frozen sample symbolically stands for the organic whole. If we make that argument successfully, we’re great photographers. I emphasize this obvious concept because we need to remain mindful of what’s going on every time we frame a shot. Occasionally we have minutes to make the decisions on what that frame will be. More typically, it’s seconds. And occasionally, it’s pieces of seconds.
Shooters already have to grapple with the fact that we are usually making static shots of constantly moving things. That’s one kind of motion. Then there is the secondary stress created by the fact that we ourselves are also moving. We snap from car windows, from escalators, from trains and subways, even while physically chasing our quarry in papparazi “run-and-gun” mode. Thus what is already a difficult sorting and choosing process is made even quicker and more crucial. The extractions in our pictures are based on a furiously fast analysis of what’s important, as well as what’s dispensable, within the frame. It’s also about a virtually instantaneous formula for what’s technically required to get the picture made. These decisions become a little easier with practice, but any comfort we’ve built up over the years can be quickly shattered when a different kind of photo opp presents itself, one which upends our usual or comfortable approaches. Then everything’s a race.
Urban images are especially challenging. Cities themselves are convulsing with steadily increasing change, altering the nature or terms of a potential picture in days or hours. Like old-time news shutterbugs, the urban photographer is truly on deadline. With that in mind, I take a shoot-it-or-lose-it stance when moving past anything I regard in a city as temporary, figuring that it is even more fleeting for me than it may be for other people. In any event, I always harvest everything I can physically shoot, and sort out the weeds later. The makeshift subway stop viewing window of construction along the 7 train line between Queens and Manhattan that you see here is gone by now, but the picture stays. Perfection? Hardly. But photography is also a game of percentages, and I am at least 100% happier for having made the attempt as not.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY IS NOW SOMEWHAT LIKE THE OLD GOD JANUS, whose two faces looked into the past and the future at the same time. No longer just an emerging art, the practice of making images with light now packs enough historical baggage that, even as we anticipate and adapt to the newest technology, we turn backward toward the comfort of technologies past. We love what’s coming but we can’t quite let go of what’s been.
That’s how you get somewhat ironic observances like this month’s Worldwide Pinhole Day, a celebration of the experience of making a photograph with the most minimal technology available…..that is, an actual bored hole in the front of a light-tight box, the aim being to take a picture without a lens. WPD is marked globally by field trips, competitions, workshops, and a bit of a cottage industry for the special pinhole gear, all of it aimed at delivering the same experience that the first snappers had when photography was the exclusive domain of tinkerers. Certainly the principle works: the pinholes are so incredibly small (often requiring very long exposures) that they actually register distant objects in fairly sharp focus, although sharpness isn’t really the goal. The idea, in the main, seems to be to conduct a successful science experiment that results in a picture, although high-end pictorial quality isn’t really the goal, either. If you’re only casually interested, various ready-made pinhole attachments are sold so you can adapt digital-era cameras to this nineteenth-century method. However, even greater authenticity and enjoyment is said to be had by shooting on 35mm roll film or 5×7 sheet film, or even making the camera itself from scratch, using cardboard boxes, coffee cans, or, as I recently saw, the inside of a plastic Star Wars tie fighter toy.
The entire thought process behind such time-travel faddism is fascinating. Unlike the first photographers, who constantly worked to expand and improve the leading tech of their time, we have reached a stage where making a picture is so mechanically simple that we find it fun to needlessly complicate, or even degrade the process again. In my own view, the more advanced cameras have become over the years, the less I’ve had to futz with the problem of how to take the photo, shifting the emphasis onto the why of it all, which is where I want it. Every scientific advance has been designed to make cameras more intuitive, imaging media more responsive, and everything generally more fool-proof. Now, however, we are far enough away from those balky first iterations of photography to develop a nostalgic fondness for them. Such is human nature.
I’m sure that, somewhere, there are festivals where the idea is to shoe your own horse, learn to darn your own socks, or field-dress the deer you just personally brought down with bow and arrow. Thing is, though, for most of us, modern life no longer requires so much effort from us merely to stay alive, which allows us to focus on the finer points of the experience. But, from our more advanced standpoint, we strangely think it’s quaint to add more accident, more randomness, more error and more uncertainty into the making of what turn out to be essentially inferior photographs, even though it has never been easier to make good ones. This is where we start to leave the realm of Art and enter the world of The Science Fair.
At one point in my son’s youth, I wrapped copper wire around an oatmeal box and scratched a hunk of germanium crystal to show him how to produce a primitive radio signal. It worked well enough to snag him a merit badge, but on the way home, he was right back to listening to his Sony Walkman. Because it sounded a helluva lot better than a wired-up Quaker Oats cannister. And while I acknowledge that artistically elegant images can be made with very rudimentary tools (of course, any image of my wife will automatically be a better picture, as seen above), pinhole images are hard to compose, expose or control in any proactive way, and thus predisposed to a high failure rate. If you’re personally wired to accept whatever the universe hands you, then the pictures that accidentally come out of your coffee can will no doubt be something of a scientific marvel, ablaze with the spark of discovery. As for me, I find that my own lack of vision or talent already interferes with my pictures far more than it should. I don’t need to further compromise my work with disobedient gear. It may be amazing, but it ain’t satisfying.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT MIGHT BE SAFELY SAID THAT THERE IS NO SUCH THING as a photograph that “doesn’t count”. There are, however, some whose purpose is not immediately apparent.
Photographers always intend to shoot something important, or compelling, or groundbreaking, producing images that have, in the eyes of the world, an obvious value or merit. And then there are the majority of the pictures we make, many of which are considered by others, as well as ourselves, as non-essential, trivial. But how do you get to the skill level needed to produce masterpieces if you don’t first produce many more failures? This may mean shooting photos that “don’t mean anything”, although that’s an odd way to describe one’s creative apprenticeship process. Everyone accepts that a young blacksmith will botch his first dozen projects on the way to ultimate artistry. Photography, on the other hand, is regarded by some to be as easy as raising your arm and plucking an apple off a tree. We strangely believe that some kind of beginner’s luck, even beginner’s excellence, ought to be automatic. Hey, it was a nice day. He had a full breakfast and a good camera. So great pictures should follow, right?
The Normal Eye picks up additional subscribers all the time (thank you) and so I believe it’s important, since this forum is about a journey, to occasionally re-emphasize the value of making a whole lot of inconsequential pictures on the road to the keepers. Learn, if you don’t already know it, the value of shooting on days when “there’s nothing to shoot” or when you are really forcing yourself to take the 4,532nd image of a place you’ve visited dozens of times. Great subjects don’t just appear: we all can’t fly to Paris on a whim. Often there is just the park down the street, a part of the back yard, the junk clustered on top of your desk. And a camera. And, hopefully, some little something that’s been added to your eye or technique that wasn’t there the last time you had to shoot pictures of boring stuff. The batters with the best averages still miss the ball most of the time. The best hunters can sometimes trudge home empty-handed. And every photographer has only one tool to bridge the gap between okay and amazing shots, and that’s to keep clicking away. At the stuff that don’t matter. On the days when you’re barely stifling a yawn. With the wrong camera, the worse light, the only lens you remembered to bring. Or, in the case of the above shot, during your twentieth year of walking through a particular park.
Photography is never an ideal situation. Something will be out of round. Some condition will be inhospitable. And there will often be a sense that “this isn’t the moment”. But here’s the deal: a better one isn’t coming. What is coming is a series of repeated exercises right out of Groundhog Day. Same day, different pictures. Maybe. Maybe not, but, still, maybe.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE, IN THE VERY INSTANT THAT I COMPOSE AND SNAP A PHOTOGRAPH, it occurs to me that, in the past, there might have been circumstances under which I talked myself out of taking that very same shot. That is, there is something in the scene before me that, at some time, might have convinced me not to attempt the picture at all. I don’t know whether to interpret this feeling as proof of growth of any type, or whether it just demonstrates my utter lack of confidence. I just know that, on different days, I can be a very different kind of photographer.
As habitual users of The Normal Eye already know, this small-town newspaper is less about the mechanics of taking a picture and more about the motivations. If we don’t understand what compels us to click/not click in particular situations, it’s pretty hard for us to figure what the whole thing’s about. Photographs are chosen, not “taken”. So, let’s peel apart my inner conversation in the making of the image seen below.
In looking at this scene from two years ago, in which some shadowy residential streets of Reno, Nevada are back-stopped by the Sierras, I could, through my own experience, easily rattle off a short grocery list of reasons not to attempt the picture. Among them:
There is too wide a contrast between the foreground and background (but is that a problem, really?).
I’m shooting through a window and therefore can’t absolutely suppress glare and reflection (but is that a deal breaker?).
There is, at first glimpse, no human story in evidence (or is there merely an absence of people in the frame? Aren’t the houses indicative of a “human story”?).
Okay, I’ll take the picture, but I’ll totally fix it later in “post”( fix it, or over-cook it and make it “ideal” rather than natural?).
……..and so on, with the additional inclusion of the most compelling “why not to” reason of them all:
the last time I tried something like this, it was a disaster.
You can see where this can lead. The very experience that should be helping you make more, better informed choices can actually scare you into seeing certain shooting situations as fraught with risk, as something to be avoided. Since we know what didn’t work in the past, we tend to think we also know what won’t work in the future. In reality, though, every time we’re up to bat, some little thing is different from our last time. Huge stuff like a different camera or lens, small stuff like being tired or distracted and every other variant in between. We may think we’ve “been here before”, but that’s only generally true. The only real way to make a picture a success or failure is to try to shoot it. Guesswork, even guesswork based on real-life experience, can paralyze. Sift through what you know and what you’ve lived through. Re-live all your so-called “failed” pictures, and then get back on the horse. As Rudyard Kipling said, “meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same.”
I don’t preach many absolutes here, but remember this one:
Always. Shoot. The. Picture.
I OFTEN FEEL THAT HABIT IS THE GREATEST POTENTIAL THREAT to the creative process. Once an artist approaches a new project through the comfort of his accumulated routines, he’s well on the road to mediocrity. If you find yourself saying things like “I always do” or “I typically use”…. you’re saying, in effect, that you’ve learned everything you need to learn in terms of your art. You already have all the ingredients for success. The ideal exposure. The perfect lens. The optimum technique. The Lost Ark…
And, if a kind of self-satisfied inertia is death-on-toast for artistic growth, then the most valuable tool in a photographer’s goodie bag is the ability to archive and curate his own work…..to keep a solid, traceable time line that clearly shows the evolution of his approach…..including the degree to which that approach has either moved along or stood still. That means not only hanging on to many of your worst pictures but also re-evaluating your best ones…..since your first judgement calls on both kinds of images will often be subject to change. Certainly there are photographs that are so clearly wonderful or wretched that your opinion of them won’t change over time. But they constitute the minority of your work. Everything in that vast middle ground between agony and ecstasy is a rich source of self-re-evaluation.
Revisiting old shoots doesn’t always yield hidden treasures. Sometimes the shot you thought was best from a certain day was best. But there may be only a hair’s-breadth of difference between the winners and the also-rans, and, at least in my own experience, the also-rans are where all the education is. For example, in the image seen here of my wife taken almost ten years ago and re-examined recently, I know two new things: first, I now know precisely why, at the time, I thought it was the worst of a ten-frame burst. Second, at this stage, I realize that it’s actually a lot closer to what I currently find essential about Marian’s face than the shot I formerly regarded as the “keeper”. I’m just that different in under a decade.
As you grow as a photographer, you will revise nearly every “must” or “never” in your belief system, from composition to focus and beyond. As life molds you, it will likewise mold the ways you see and comment on that life. An archive of your work, warts and all, is the most valuable resource you can consult to trace that journey, and it will nourish and inform every picture you make from here on.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHIC TECHNIQUES CAN BE THOUGHT OF as both active and passive. Some of the tools used to tell a visual story silently move narratives along without loudness or fuss, while others deliberately call attention as much to themselves as to the tales they tell. You can make pictures that betray very little of “how’d they do that?” or you can trumpet your tricks very loudly.
Or, of course, you can do both.
As a case study, consider one of 2018’s Oscar contenders, The Favourite, which tells a surreal tale of eighteenth-century castle intrigue with camera work that fairly screams to be noticed, mixing standard widescreen shots with ultra-wide and even fisheye compositions, shuffled together in jarring transitions, as if the director needs to remind us how twisted and nightmarish the story it by keeping us visually off-kilter for the entire length of the movie. Contrast this with most films that try to render their photographic tricks invisibly, in keeping with established Hollywood tradition. Is it a case of The Favorite’s director merely showing off his technical cleverness?
Well, yes and no. Various lenses convey vastly different concepts of space, of the width and depth of rooms, of the relationships between man and nature. Using an extreme tool like, say, a fisheye, changes the rules of engagement for the viewer, even when applied to a conventional subject. The photographer is, in effect, saying “composition is what I say it is, not what you’ve been led to expect.” Of course, when you drastically distort how a scene or object is presented, you risk your picture being “about” the visual effect, eclipsing your message instead of amplifying it.
The characters in The Favourite are in a constant state of moral disequilibrium, with everyone jostling for position or advantage, so an unsettling shift between various lenses reflects their uncertainty, the unreality of their situation, actually enhancing the nightmare quality for the audience. Does your picture call for a technique that, in turn, calls attention to itself? Flamboyant or not, the answer must, occasionally be yes.
Just because you’re showing off doesn’t mean you’re wrong.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AT THIS WRITING, or January of 2019, your humble author is anticipating a little side trip back into film technology, as I await delivery of a roll of the re-introduced Kodak Ektachrome 35mm reversal film. The stock will be fairly slowly rated at 100 speed, so, along with the generally unforgiving nature of slide film, there will be more than enough potential for the final product to come in on the underexposed side. Which is fine with me.
Years ago, I fell in love with the hyper-saturation I got when I accidentally under-exposed original Ektachrome and its even slower cousin, the lost and lamented Kodachrome. So once I load the E-roll into my old Minolta SRT-200, I might even try to deliberately push the bottom end of the stuff to see just how minimal I can make the shots……which got me thinking about recent instances in which I tried to get that Dutch-lit effect digitally. Turns out that there were more than a few of them in the year just gone by, and so I preceded to gather up a short stack for a new page called When Lights Are Low, joining the other tabs at the top of this page as of this posting.
There are no coordinating themes in this grouping, just the common experiment of undercranking the exposure to see just how much you can do with how little. A few of the images were the subject of earlier essays in these pages: most haven’t been seen before. Of course, shooting film again is, for me, returning to the high risk and low reward of the medium, which can be, let’s face it, a chance to avenge old sins. Maybe this time I’ll get it right.
When it comes right down to it, film is very aspirational: you have to invest a lot of hope in it at the front end, and be happier with a much slimmer harvest of usable goodies than in the digital world. But it’s occasionally fun to take a filmic effect that you’ve learned to emulate in digital and try to achieve it, you know, on film. Whatever that proves is to be decided by those of you out there in the darkness who are sporting degrees in psychoanalysis. Meanwhile, the whole thing makes my head hurt, so I’m going to go lie down. Cheers.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PERHAPS THE GREATEST SINGLE MOTIVATOR, FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS, is the eternal attempt to narrow the gap between what is seen and what can be shown, a permanent sense of one’s pictures coming up short, doomed to mere actuality versus the grand visions dancing in our heads. We shoot, we lament having “missed it”, and we shoot again. Lather, rinse, repeat.
I’ve written before, here, on the most frustrating, if tantalizing, subjects within that overall challenge….scenes or objects that we are free to repeatedly, endlessly re-shoot in hopes of “getting it right”, chasing the same things year after year, camera after camera, lens after lens, like Ahab chasing the White Whale round the world’s oceans.
These inexhaustible things are usually a staple of our immediate environment, part of our daily drives or walks, our standard routines. The maddening thing is that such hyper-familiar things should, eventually, submit to our art, should finally be captured in some final, completed fashion. But, in many cases, they remain studies, rehearsals, sketches. Unfinished business.
The tree you see here is one of my personal White Whales. I must drive past it at least five times a week, mostly in a quick glimpse out the window of my car. I have seen it in every season, every type of light, every mood filter within my own head. I have thrilled as it billowed to its fullest flower and mourned when groundskeepers judged it too wild and rangy, pruning it in ways that threaten, for a time, to obliterate the tree’s identity. I have parked and stepped over to pay it closer tribute with this lens or that, shooting full-on, in macro mode along trunk grain or branch lines, in fisheye, sharp detail, selective focus, monochrome and color. Each rendition gives me something; no one image delivers all.
Your particular tree (or house, or face, or river, or..) can both energize and enervate your photography. Even your failures can be seen as a prelude to inevitable success, as rehearsals toward a final, finessed performance. That feeling of being on a conveyor belt to Paradise is the essence of art, with the journey teasing us that there is, actually, a destination. If you have no White Whale of your own, I recommend heading out to sea, and scanning the horizon until you see one spout. Then grab a camera and try to tell someone about it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE BLESSINGS OF DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY (and the best argument for laying aside film) is the nearly endless and affordable numbers of “do-overs” it affords the learning shooter. Cranking out the sheer volume of practice frames needed to hone one’s skills and train one’s eyes used to be costly in both currency and years. As a consequence, many photographers had far fewer successful experiences than others. Money and time separated those who mastered their methodologies and those who were forced to click and trust to luck.
Digital cameras, through their pure scientific advancement, guaranteed that many more of our most hurried snaps were at least technically passable. But they gave us a far more important gift….the ability to speed up our learning curve through a speedy, risk-free process of constant feedback….an endless stream of yes/no, pass/fail messages that shape our work over the course of months instead of years, allowing us to understand what is going wrong, and fix it in the moment, while the family is still gathered in this room, while that amazing sunset is still grabbable. We learn everything faster, especially the use of new equipment.
Part of this “break-in” process for gear, at least for me, is to select something, anything to shoot with it……to not wait for a perfect occasion or an ideal subject, but to seek examples of the conditions under which I want to use the new gear. Any place can become a sort of kingdom of non-keepers, a lab for images where I don’t expect to do much more than make mistakes.
This kind of experimentation is perfect for days with iffy weather or drab, overworked locales, since part of learning a lens is figuring out how to make the ordinary extraordinary in any and all conditions. To my earlier point, shooting in this way seemed (to me) wasteful and risky with film: you always felt that you had to get a good return-on-investment for whatever the roll and processing were costing you. That could unconsciously lead you to shoot more conservatively, to play things safe, lest your crop of keepers be diminished by doing something reckless. But that’s the rub, innit? “Reckless” is where the good stuff comes from.
The shot seen here is from such a “let’s see what happens” shoot, a quick walk through a shopping mall I’ve visited a jillion times. The site has long since ceased to show me anything fresh to look at, but it sports a wide range of light conditions and textures throughout a typical day, so it is an appropriate kingdom for non-keepers, and a good place to crank off about fifty shots with a manual lens that’s still kicking my behind on precise focus. As it turns out, this particular piece of glass (a Soviet-era Helios 44) is soft even at its sharpest, but since that’s something I actually desire at times, practice is a must.
I’m a big believer, then, of shooting lots of pictures that “don’t matter”…..because they make you ready for the day when they really do. And because, once you can think less about how to take a picture, you can spend more time thinking about why you take it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE’VE ALL DONE IT: we’re sent to the grocery store for bread and milk, and come back with a six-pack of beef jerky, a gallon tub of guacamole, and a family-sized box of Trix. Sometimes, lost in the sublime and seductive specials inside the store, we even come home without the bread and milk. But, hey, beef jerky.
That’s what happens on some photographic shoots.
The sequence is familiar. You pick the target. You pack the appropriate gear. You may also have to book passage or pay for admission to something. You research the forecast. You even visualize the expected layout or sequence of shots. And then comes the day itself, a day upon which, for whatever reason, the pictures won’t come. A day upon which you can’t buy a usable image for love or money. To further torture my original metaphor, the grocery store is fresh out of bread and milk.
But, fear not: as a photographer, you are nothing if not resilient. Like a lost dad determined to find something of use somewhere in the supermarket, you go looking for deals. The pictorial orphans. The what-the-hell or go-for broke shots. Wild clicks as you’re slinking back to the parking lot. Cripes, at this point, you’re reduced to looking for cute dogs. But will these desperate moves yield pictorial gold?
No guarantees. Fate doesn’t dole out consolation prizes. However, the primal panic that results from seeing your Plan “A” go down in flames can make you more open to experimentation, less fastidious about getting the perfect frame. That, in turn, may lead to embracing the accidental over the intentional……of moving your emphasis from the conceptual (your original plan) to the perceptual (flashes of ideas that occur once your mind is open).
The shot seen here, if I’m honest, is neither good nor bad. It was merely workable at the end of a day on which absolutely nothing else was. I liked what the light was ( and wasn’t) doing in the moment, and the girl gave me a small anchor for the viewer’s eye, albeit a small one. Other than that, I had no overarching concept for the picture. An empty grocery cart made me reach for the beef jerky.
Photographs begin with intention, certainly. But we often kid ourselves about what a huge part randomness plays in what happens between Think and Click. We’d love to assume we’re in charge of our process. But let’s also learn to love the disrupters, the detours, and the dreams gone amiss.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ANSEL ADAMS BEGAN as an awestruck kid with a Brownie No.1 box camera. He finished up as an uber-brand, the global icon for photography itself. Regardless of how individuals may regard his work, labeling it by turns honest, interpretive, natural, or sentimental, his image as a creative ideal is beyond debate. To be an “Ansel” is to be hungry, tireless in pursuit of excellence.
The ultimate maestro of the darkroom, Adams believed that only the first half of a photograph’s making, the equivalent in his mind of a musical “score”, could occur in the camera. The other half, what he termed “the performance”, was unabashedly a product of talent and judgement in the lab. The stunning achievement of his final frames was not only in not calling attention to his interventions but to create the wondrous illusion that there had been none.
That may be why Ansel is, today, often held up as the patron saint of film-based technique, as if, had he lived to fully experience the digital revolution, he would have taken a pass on it. A look at his history indicates otherwise. His published work shows an artist in constant anticipation of the next stage, the latest tool, the freshest way of seeing. Even his celebrated slow embrace of color was about the contemporary limits of printing technology rather an assertion that monochrome was in any way superior.
“I eagerly await new concepts and processes” he wrote in 1981, just three years before his death and nearly a decade ahead of the digital revolution. “I believe that the electronic image (viewed on an electronic screen) will be the next major advance. Such systems will have their own inherent characteristics, and the artist will again strive to comprehend and control them.” Not exactly the sentiments of a Luddite.
Those who choose to force their own photography through a kind of W.W.A.D.? (What Would Ansel Do?) filter miss the true and obvious answer: he would do whatever it takes. Perhaps his art belongs in a museum, but the best of what he was is still very much out in the field. Out where the wonder is.
BY MICHAEL PERKINS
I NEVER EXPECTED MY APPROACH TO PHOTOGRAPHIC TECHNIQUE to actually become less rigid as I veered into my, er, golden years. For years, I’ve feared that either technical challenges or life bias or just my own stubborn cussedness might make me tend to cling to established rules in a way that would stunt my late-stage growth. After all, we all like to feel that an underpinning of of our accumulated experiences and habits will ensure consistent, if not spectacular picture making, as if it’s our reward for a lifetime of playing by the rules. And yet, somehow, I seem to be experiencing, at present, a kind of Year Of Going For Broke, a feeling of being comfortable being uncomfortable. I like flying without a net. Instead of worrying about whether an image will technically “work out”, I’m find myself more concerned with whether it emotionally works.
It’s not that I care so much less about what I used to think of as “precision”: it’s more that the term now means something different from mere technical recording of what is in front of me. We start off as photographers by trusting the camera to do the heavy lifting: we end, if we’re fortunate, by placing that burden on ourselves.
Looking at the pictures that I’m content with over the past few years, I see a curve toward much more instinctual shooting. Some of this is because technical advancements have made preparing to take picture ever easier and faster. That means that the gear is responsive enough to “save” more shots that would have been lost in earlier years. The evolution of increasingly better sensors, for example, has emboldened me to at least try shots that, in the film era, I would have avoided as impossible. Nabbing the shot you see here with a handheld camera would have been a fantasy for me prior to about 2000. Today, while not technically perfect, such a shot is (a) achieveable and (b) close enough to what I envisioned that I’m encouraged to keep trying for these kinds of pictures.
But I don’t want to be unclear: I’m not shooting looser just because equipment can compensate for my lack of skill or bad judgement. It’s more like my learning to let go of ultra-rigid ways of seeing is partnering with technology that encourages me to peace the hell out. That’s due in part to the example of a new kind of photographer, one borne of the cellphone era. I want to pay tribute to that person in some detail, and I will, in the very next post.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY IS GUILTY OF MANY AN UNTRUTH, simply by the very nature of how it mimics reality. And chief among these falsehoods is its assertion that it’s reproducing depth as well as length and breadth, that you’re not only looking at a photograph but into it as well. Compositional tricks employed to sell this illusion are as old as the medium itself, many employing the technique familiarly known as leading lines.
The phrase is practically an explanation in itself: two or more lines of some kind seem to originate near the foreword edge of the picture and trail inward, receding toward the “back” of the frame, usually toward a horizon line of infinity, at a point at which the lines seem to converge, like train tracks that grow closer as they fade into the distance. Leading lines can take the form of a spiral staircase, a winding stream, or some similar invitation for your eye to “buy into” the idea that the flat image is actually “deep”.
As surefire as leading lines can be, it’s also fun to experiment with other ways to convey the illusion of depth. The image seen here uses no obvious leading lines, and yet it achieves a reasonable effect of dimensionality. Several things can help “sell” the trick.
First and easiest is the choice of a 24mm lens. This optic qualifies as an “ultra-wide” and will always exaggerate the distance from front to back. Then there’s the detailed texture of rock and sand, whose particles shrink in size as the tide pool recedes toward the sea, and just as our mind knows it would in nature. As to focus, setting at infinity helps the eye look deeper into the shot, whereas just shooting only the family in sharpness might stop the audience at a shallower viewing point. Finally, the placing of the family at center and at the mid-point of the front-to-back distance means you have to “look into” the shot fairly deeply just to engage them, at which point your brain has already been dragged halfway to the rear of the shot.
And this is only one very elementary example of how you can effect the depth of a leading line image without….the leading lines. In some ways, photographic compositions are much like musical ones: both require orchestration and a willful conductor.