By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS PASS A VERY IMPORTANT MILEPOST when they first learn that pictures can be both reliable and unreliable narrators. As neophytes, we assume that the camera doesn’t lie, that it is a trustworthy tool for capturing the truth, a kind of optically-based lie detector. Later, we learn that, in certain hands, the camera can also distort, mislead, and, certainly, lie. It’s a heartbreaking moment for some, while it’s almost freeing for others.
Bearing witness with a camera is a noble calling, but, even among the most ethical or clear-minded image-makers, there are visual stories that can’t be plainly told, tableaux in which the scene itself is a reluctant witness. Call them pictures without ample evidence.
Shooters can certainly use their interpretive skills to play connect-the-dots in many a photo, but what can be done when there aren’t enough dots to connect? In such cases, merely starting a conversation is the best one can hope for.
I simply had to record the scene you find here. I was walking with some friends toward an urban sewer tunnel from which thousands of bats were guaranteed to emerge at sundown, when, with one of our party nearing the rendezvous, I spotted the abandoned wheelchair you see at left. Clearly this was a case in which no photograph could be expected to “explain” anything, but which was visually irresistible nonetheless. The mixture of object and place equals…what? Why would someone bring a wheelchair to a semi-remote location, and then just leave it? Did someone experience a miracle cure that obviated any further use for the device? If so, why go to the trouble of dumping it out in the sticks? How does one dispose of an unwanted wheelchair? Had someone upgraded to a better model, and thus turned their previous unit into roadside litter? Was some semi-ambulatory adventurer off on a brief stroll in the area, eventually returning to the chair to rest in before heading home? Would someone seeing a picture of my friend walking away from the chair assume he had been its occupant? If so, what would they assume happened? And, of course, was I being dishonest for even including him and the chair in the same frame?
You can see where this is all going. The frame is hardly a “gag” or “gimmick” shot, and it’s not unique among photographs (mine or others) in posing more questions than it can possibly answer. Moreover, I certainly don’t have any explanation for the chair’s appearance that makes any sense, at least to me. And yet, I wouldn’t dream of not shooting the picture, as it’s too much of an “A” example of what happens when the photo itself is a reluctant, even hostile, witness.
Seeing may indeed be believing, even if you can’t actually decide what it is you’re being asked to believe.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE ARE ENTERING THE ANNUAL SEASON OF ENHANCED BELIEF, that sadly brief period during which we temporarily suspend many of our most cynical operating procedures, erring on the side of hope. Religion is most probably the root cause of much of this uptick in outlook, although plenty of us experience additional “buy in” to the world’s best possibilities in ways that transcend creed or calling. Photographers, too, approach the world through slightly rosier glasses, especially as it regards the season’s main repositories of belief, children.
Of course, belief isn’t really a seasonal thing with kids: it’s more like their home territory, their native base of operations. Long after adults learn not to hope for too much, years after we’ve taught ourselves to lower or tamp down our expectations, new generations of kids are factory-preset to imagine what if, and wouldn’t it be cool? Magic isn’t an aberration for a child but a basic law of the universe. If a kid can dream a thing, he or she generally believes that it can, and should, come true. Photographers see this “buy-in” manifest in every child’s game, every cardboard box made into a makeshift rocket ship. And images that capture that wonder are among the most heart-warming of this or any season.
The young man you see here is dead serious about his idea of fun. He made the mask and cuff he’s wearing with his own hands, but that doesn’t render them any less miraculous. Once he’s put them on, he’s ready for reality to be altered into something useful, something fanciful. It doesn’t take much. Mom’s bath towel becomes Superman’s cape: a sock pulled over your hand becomes a sidekick, right down to his button eyes. And, apparently, there’s no disconnect between the space garb on his head and wrist and his regular dinosaur t-shirt. Consistency is for grown-ups, bah humbug.
Pictures like this are a gift because they remind us of having already received a far bigger one; the gloriously indomitable ability of a child to will dreams into life. Mom and Dad may check in and out of the zone of belief, but kids rule the realm.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOME PRACTITIONERS OF PHOTOGRAPHY EMBRACE WHAT THEY CALL REALITY, while other factions run as far away as they can from the strictures of the “actual” world. There will always be shooters who see their main role as that of a chronicler or witness, recording “Joe Friday” pictures, i.e., just the facts, ma’am. Others see the real universe as nothing more than a point of departure. Their images could easily be labeled “based on a true story.”
Neither viewpoint can go it alone. Without reality as a reference point, flights of fancy float off into chaos. Conversely, without a sense of whimsy, the gravity of the world can make a photograph leaden and moribund. Let’s face it: dreamers and didacts need each other, and complement each other within a single picture the way fat flavors lean meat. Moreover, trying to attenuate a customized mix of these two disciplines is the real fun in photography.
I’ve been fascinated of late by the new surge of interest in manual typewriters. It’s the same longing for recently-departed technology that’s fired a revival in film and the rebirth of vinyl lps. We are moving so quickly forward in some ways that we are understandably reluctant to regard every part of our past as dispensible ballast to be jettisoned on the way to some perfect Futureworld. And so we linger a while. We prolong our goodbyes a bit.
Some writers have recently renewed their love affair with the clack and clatter of the mechanical keyboard, marrying its noise, heft, and bulk to a kind of seriousness, as if a story or essay were somehow more authentic if pounded out on an old Royal or Smith-Corona. The recent documentary California Typewriter takes its title from a scrappy repair shop that survives to the present day by restoring old beaters for a new crop of trendy customers who either admire the sheer engineering wonder or the mystical oomph it confers on their scribblings. High-profile adherents like Tom Hanks, John Meyer and David McCullough rhapsodize about the contours, keyboard height, and return bell of their respective treasures. It’s great fun.
Photographically, I started to explore just how far the idea of the typewriter-as-magical-device could be stretched. Would it endow the user with the ability to solve knotty equations? Conjure ingenious recipes? What if the typewriter had unilateral power to enhance the creation of anything, even melody? What kind of typewriter might help Mozart crank out a concerto? Would his greatest works go mid-performed for centuries just because he transposed certain keys? And what would that process look like?
I decided to use a selective focus lens (the Lensbaby Composer with Sweet 35 optic) to de-emphasize the process of typing (the softly rendered keys) and call attention to the magical product (the sheet music being generated, focused more sharply) coming out of an imagined Corona wielded by an inspired Amadeus. The concept is so ridiculous that it’s compelling, producing a photograph which can’t be true but which ought to be true, rather like Dumbo using his ears to fly despite the fact that he weighs half a ton. I love these kinds of exercises because I embrace the fact that photographs can tell enchanting lies. And as Paul McCartney sings, “what’s wrong with that?”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS TRY TO IDENTIFY the so-called “eternal” verities of life, the common elements of experience that are unchanging over time. We all find our way to sunsets, shores, the mysteries of the human face, the course of light. But how about the more subjective “truths”, those purely emotional facts which may wax and wane with passing fancy?
Can we say, visually, what beauty is, or for that matter, what the depiction of humor, truth, or other subjective values should look like? Pictures of anything that is governed by fashion or fad will find themselves shredded by the same temporal process that makes Grandpa’s handlebar moustache seem ridiculous rather than rakish and makes the miniskirt a measure of folly instead of hipness.
Consider something as personal as a toy. In one era, its features are comical and cute, whereas, a few decades later, they might register as, well, creepy. As a case in point, the image seen above is of a 19th-century automaton, a mechanized dancing musical doll called “The Mask Vendor”. The grinning harlequin on the right is the vendor, and the visage at left is one of his wares, which range in expression from foolish to demonic. Good times, eh? Oh, look at this jolly prankster selling “counterfeits” of faces! What rascally fun!
I can tell you, as a tour guide in the museum that “the Vendor” calls home, that he is regarded with horror, not joy, and that the feeling he projects on young visitors is one of dread, not mischief (one Hispanic tour guest, a seven-year-old, referred to him, shakily, as “el Diablo!”). So how to make a picture of such an oddity?
As a photographer, I’m in an odd place here. I have enough historic knowledge to know that the doll was originally associated with gaiety, and yet I live in a time in which its message of fun has long since been twisted and corrupted to suggest something dark…..so much so that any image I make of it, as filtered through current-day sensitivities, must shift between both “realities”. I am thus free to add as much irony or ghoulishness as I choose, like the veneer of haze I added to accentuate the dreariness/nightmarishness of the thing. Nothing is over the top.
Even when we snap something as eternal as a sunrise, we may unconsciously be adding some additional layer of ourselves as a similarly hazy veneer. But how can it be helped? Unlike the Vendor, we’re only human. Brrrrrr.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PUTTERING SUFFERS A BAD REPUTATION, coming somewhere on the disreputability scale between “screwing around” and “just passing the time”, poking an insolent finger in the eye of the Puritan work ethic. The headmaster’s voice echoes from the land of Hard-Won Wisdom: Time is money. Make something of yourself. Whattaya gonna do, waste the entire day?
Yeah, replies the photographer within you. Thought I might….
Making a picture isn’t the same process as building a bridge. You don’t always end the project with the same aims as you began with. Like any other artistic enterprise, the answer might come in the journey, rather than the destination. And a photographer, caught in mid-creation and asked, “what you doing?” should be quite comfortable answering, “you know, I’m not really sure yet…”
The above image is a total exercise in “let’s see what happens if I do this“, and at no time in the making of it did I have a set plan or firm objective: I just did know when to stop, but everything else was negotiable in the moment. I wasn’t wasting time: I was investing it.
At first, I was trying to take a picture of my back yard, which over my shoulder, as it was reflected in the glass cabinet door in front of me. I was about to kill the power on the amplifier on a shelf behind the door when a test shot revealed something unusual. At my chosen aperture, the amp’s two red LEDs weren’t reading as sharp points of light, but as diffuse outer circles surrounding soft inner circles, almost like a pair of feral eyes. And at that point, the garden scene slowly started to take a back seat.
Shooting the glass door at a slight angle made my body register as a reflection, while shooting straight on turned me into a silhouette, which would become handy. Now that I was just a shape, I could be anything, so I positioned myself to where the dots indeed appeared to glowing, spooky eyes. Shooting with my right hand, my body details now masked by shadow, I crossed my left hand over beyond the right edge of my body, posing it to look as if I were stealing something, or perhaps twisting the dial on a combination safe. Having thus established the behavior for the character I was now creating, I grabbed my wife’s garden hat and threw a bed blanket around my shoulders for some sinister atmosphere. Click and done, with my newly imagined Phantom Blot plotting his way into the house. I didn’t know the whole story, but I knew when to stop playing. Total time investment: five big minutes.
You won’t always have an organized blueprint for a picture when you set about making one. Besides, if you confine yourself solely to the familiar when shooting, eventually all of your photos will start to resemble each other, and not in a good, “cohesive body of work” way.
Screw with the formula. Embrace the uncertain.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE ART OF MESSING ABOUT WITH THE MIND’S CONCEPT OF SIZE, making the small look large, has been part of photography since the beginning, whether it’s been crafting the starship Enterprise at 1/25 scale for primitive special effects or making Lilliputian mockups of Roman warships for a sea battle in Ben-Hur. Making miniatures a convincing stand-in for full-size has been a constant source for amazing images.
Oddly, there has also been a growing fascination, in recent years, with using new processes to make full-sized reality appear toy-like, as if Grand Central Station were just a saltine box full of HO-scale boxcars. Seems no one thinks things are as they should be.
This turnabout trend fascinates me, as people use tilt-shift and selective-focus lenses, along with other optics, to selectively blur and over-saturate real objects taken at medium or long distances to specifically create the illusion that you’re viewing a tabletop model. Entire optical product lines, such as the Lensbaby family of effects lenses, have been built around this idea, as have endless phone apps and Photoshop variants. We like the big to look small just as much as we like the teeny to look mighty. Go figure.
And who can resist playing on both sides of the street?
The image at the top is the usual fun fakery, with my tiny-is-full-size take on the marvelous diorama made for the Musical Instrument Museum (the crown jewel of Phoenix, Arizona), which reproduces a complete symphony orchestra in miniature. This amazing illusion was created using a spectacular photo system that creates a 360-degree scan of each full-sized player, maps every item of his features, costume, and instrument, then converts that scan to a 3-d printed, doll-sized version of every member of the symphony. To read about this awesome process, go here.
As for making regular reality look like Tiny Towns, we offer the image at the left, taken by photographer Jefz Lim as part of his online tutorial on the creation of the “model” effect. We are in the age of ultimate irony when we deliberately try to palm off the real as the fake. The “how” of this kind of image-making is basic focus-pocus. The “why” is a little harder to put your finger on.
Size does matter. Ah, but what size matters the most…..that’s your call.
I know all the songs that the cowboys know
‘Bout the big corral where the doggies go
‘Cause I learned them all on the radio
Yippie yi yo kai yay
“I’m An Old Cowhand”, music and lyrics by Johnny Mercer
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOMETIMES IT SEEMS THAT WE ARE NEVER REALLY FINISHED with photography’s past, using today’s technology to summon forth the look and spirit of what we see as the early innocence of the art. Photographers are always trying to wrench free of yesteryear, and yet, in our images, we love to romance the echoes of the shooters that we were, as well as the world that what there to shoot.
We like to conjure ghosts.
We’ve reached a place where, through one process or another, it’s easy to evoke almost any phase of photography we desire, a strange nostalgia that has artificially extended the use of film by a good many years into the digital era. We like the feel, the habits, even the defects of film as a storage medium. We build brand-new pinhole box cameras: we revive and repair old tool dies so we can manufacture factory-fresh editions of defective old gizmos. We write computer code that allows our smartphones to imitate the grain and texture of archaic celluloid emulsions.
Of course, there has to be subject matter to feed all this retro-tech, and, in the American west, the medium matches the message as we drench memories of the frontier in our own brew of reflective processes. Sepia tone, soft focus, high contrast, long exposures, all of them are used to summon the bygone glories of cactus and canyon. The settling of the west will always create a kind of poignant ache for photographers. The surveyors, the settlers, even the Hollywood myth-makers all stole a march on us. We bring our cameras to try to spook up a smidgen of the Big Pictures that we missed.
It’s a kind of harmless fakery that we paint upon mesa and mountain, a re-interpretation of a truth none of us really knows for sure. It’s dressing up to play cowboys and indians, with the camera’s eye to help make the best, most authentic forgeries we can muster. Living in the west in the 21st century, I find that conjuring ghosts, like indulging in any other kind of fantasy photography, is like building a doll house. I control the furniture, the wall paper, the layout of the rooms. We all arrived to late to ask the Riders of the Purple Sage to smile for the birdie. But there are still smiles of a sort, even an occasional tear, to be drawn in the dust.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE ARE MANY WAYS TO FORCE YOUR AUDIENCE TO SEE THINGS ANEW, to strip away their familiar contexts as everyday objects and create a completely different visual effect. The first, and most obvious form of abstraction we all learned in our cradle, that of rendering a subject in black and white. Some early photographers spent so many years in monochrome, in fact, that they actually regarded early color with suspicion, as is it was somehow less real. The moral of the story is: the photograph demonstrates the world that you dictate, shown strictly on your own terms.
Abstraction also comes about with the use of lenses that distort distances or dimensions, with re-assignment of color (green radishes, anyone?), and by compositions that extract subjects from their natural surroundings. Isolate one gear from a machine and it becomes a different object. Magnify it, light it differently, or show just a small portion of it, and you are taking it beyond its original purpose, and into abstraction. Your viewer is then free to re-interpret how he sees, or thinks, about that thing.
One swift gift of the post-digital world that I find interesting is the ability, through apps, to render a negative of any image with a click or swipe, then modifying it with the same color filters that you might apply to a positive photo. This affords an incredible amount of trial-and-error in a remarkably short space of time, and better yet, you’re out in the world rather than in the lab. Of course, negatives have always been manipulated, often to spectacular effect, but always after it was too late to re-take the original picture. Adjustments could be made, certainly, but the subject matter, by that time, was long gone, and that is half the game.
Reversing the color values in a photograph is no mere novelty. Sometimes a shadow value can create a stunning design when “promoted” to a lead value with a strong color. Sometimes the original range of contrast in the negative can be made more dramatic. And, occasionally, the reversal process renders some translucent or shiny surfaces with an x-ray or ghostly quality. And, of course, as with any effect, it can just register as a stupid novelty. Hey, it’s a gimmick, not a guarantee.
“Going negative”, as they say in the political world, is now an instantaneous process, allowing you the most flexibility for re-takes and multiple “mixes” as you combine the neg with everything from toy camera effects to simulated Technicolor. And while purists might rage that we are draining the medium of its mystery, I respectfully submit that photographers have always opted for fixes that they can make while they are in the field. And now, if you don’t like the direction you’re driving, you can put ‘er in reverse, and go down a different road.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE HAVE ALL EXPERIENCED THE SHOCK OF SEEING OURSELVES IN A CERTAIN KIND OF PHOTOGRAPH, a strange combination of framing, light or even history that makes us actually ask, “who is that?? before realizing the truth. Of course we always know, intellectually, that a photo is not an actual visual record of events but an abstraction, and still we find ourselves emotionally shocked when it’s capable of rendering very familiar things as mysteries. That odd gulf between what we know, and what we can get an image to show, is always exciting, and, occasionally, confounding.
Every once in a while, what comes out in a picture is so jarringly distant from what I envisioned that I want to doubt that I was even involved in capturing it. Such photographs are magical orphans, in that they are neither successes nor failures, neither correct or wrong, just…..some other thing. My first reaction to many of these kinds of shots is to toss them into the “reject” pile, as every photo editor before 1960 might have, but there are times when they will not be silenced, and I find myself giving them several additional looks, sometimes unable to make any final decision about them at all.
The above shot was taken on a day when I was really shooting for effect, as I was using both a polarizing filter to cut glare and a red 25 filter to render severe contrast in black and white. The scene was a reedy brook that I had shot plenty of times at Phoenix’ Desert Botanical Garden, but the shot was not planned in any way. As a matter of fact, I made the image in about a moment and a half, trying to snap just the shoreline before a boisterous little girl could get away from her parents and run into the frame. That’s all the forethought that went into it.
With all the extreme filtration up front of the lens, I was shooting slow, at about 1/30 of a second, and, eager to get to the pond, the child was just too fast for me. Not fast enough to be a total blur, but fast enough for my lens to render her softly, strangely. And since every element in a picture talks to every other element, the rendering of the reeds, which was rather murky, added even more strangeness to the little girl, her face forever turned away, her intent or presence destined to remain a secret.
I might like this picture, but I worry that wanting to like it is making me see something in it that isn’t there. Am I trying to wish some special quality into a simple botched shot, acting as a sort of self-indulgent curator in search of “art”?
Can’t tell. Too soon.
Check with me in another five years or so.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PANORAMAS WERE DEVELOPED IN PAINTING, AND LATER IN PHOTOGRAPHY, to alter, not capture, reality. This is one of those man-over-nature struggles that thrilled 19th-century brainiacs. Consider: both mediums are hemmed in by physical limits. The frame can only be so big. The wall can only go so wide. Sadder still, there are limits to the width of human vision, which is why our neck swivels from side to side, giving us the ability to tilt our head attentively when our wives whisper something pertinent to us during the third act of The Barber Of Seville.
So, panos were a fascinating fakery from the start, an attempt to compensate for our limited senses and the cramped confines of the frame, providing no less a warp of reality than a kaleidoscope or 3-d. They were great for showing the broad sweep of the Battle of Gettyburg or the entire breadth of the Coney Island Boardwalk, but the emphasis, historically, was always on closely simulating reality, in that objects were photographed in their natural proportions from left to right and focus was always pinsharp from near objects to the horizon. In other words, “real” phoniness instead of exaggerated phoniness (huh?).
Now, however, with self-stitching panoramic software in phone cameras, we have a process that actually accentuates unreality, and that can be interesting. Ideally, to take a pano, you must sweep the camera slowly from left to right during the exposure. Now, this would result in a “realistic” perspective, if you could maintain constantly smooth motion and a uniform distance from your subject all the way across, which is impossible unless you’re seated on a dolly and being pushed along a track by four of your friends. So much for reality.
So, what you’re forced to do instead is to twist your body left, remain standing in one place, and be the central pivot point while you pan across yourself until you get all the way to the right. Imagine your body to be a hinge and your arms to be a swinging gate.This creates a crazy amount of spatial distortion not unlike a fisheye effect, and that is my point. Play to that weakness and make it a strength. Leave reality behind and look for patterns, your own abstract designs, in other words, improvements on reality. Panoramas aren’t tools for map-makers. You’re not going to hang your images like tapestries across the east wall of the capitol rotunda. So have some fun doing what reality won’t allow.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE HOLIDAY SEASON MAY OFTEN SEEM TO HAVE “OFFICIAL” COLORS, (red, green, etc.) but its unofficial colors reside primarily, and gloriously, in memory. Given how many iterations of photography span most of our lives, our minds tend to twist and tweak colors into highly individualized chromatic channels. Are your most treasured moments in ’50’s Black and White? ’60’s Kodachrome? In the time-tinted magentas of snaps from the 70’s? In blue-green Super 8 Ektachrome or expired Lomo film? Or do you dream in Photoshop?
This is personal stuff, very personal. It seems like we ought to agree universally on the “correct” colors of the season, but, given that our most precious holiday moments are preserved on various archival media, it might be our memory of seeing these events “played back” that is stronger than our actual remembrance of them. As Paul Simon says, everything looks worse in black and white, or in this case, what really happened pales in comparison to our print, Polaroid, movie and slide souvenirs.
This means that there are a million subliminal color “cues” that trigger memory, and not all of them come from “correctly” exposed images. Color is mood, and seasonal pictures can benefit greatly from the astounding range of processing tools suddenly available to everyone. Not all photographs benefit from apps and digital darkroom massages, for sure, but their use is perhaps more seductive, in this mental mid-point between reality and memory than at other times of the year. Fantasy is in play here, after all, and fantasy has no “right” hue. Dreams are too vast a realm to be confined to the basics, so ’tis the season to dip into a wider paintbox.
Memory needs room to breathe, and the photographs that help them fully fill their lungs become the gifts that keep on giving.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN PHOTOGRAPHY, WE FIRST LEARN HOW TO CONTROL LIGHT WHEN THERE IS A PRETTY GOOD SUPPLY OF IT. Our baby-step pictures are usually taken in the middle of the day, where it’s easier to over-expose than under-expose the shot. The sun is out and it’s a constant resource. We may step in and out of a shadow or need to fill a few gaps with flash, but mostly the issue of light is about managing something you have a big bunch of.
Once we venture into night shots, light becomes a precious commodity, like water in the desert. The equation is flipped. Now we’re struggling to get enough illumination to shape a shot, or sometimes just save it. We can shoot in the reduced light that’s on hand, but it takes a little more orchestration. Move into time exposures and the terms of engagement change again, with the ability to play God with the physics of things.
And then there’s light painting, selective hand illumination during long exposures, where the aim is suddenly beyond the merely real. In fact, light painting is about deliberately manipulating mood and atmosphere, of bringing a magical quality where none exists. It also is the kind of low-light photography with the least predictable results, and the highest possible failure rate. You are constantly in uncharted waters, since no two exposures come out even remotely alike. You’re flying blind with your eyes open.
I have recently begun to head outdoors to re-imagine trees in these artificial, fantasy-flavored “light compositions”, in an effort to lend heft to subjects that, in daylight, would register pretty low on the wow meter. Over the years, I have honed my technique with tabletop light painting in controlled interiors, but if I get one exterior shot in thirty that I can live with, that’s an amazing day, er, night.
I don’t have any wisdom to impart on these shots, since their value is so crazy subjective. You do it until you like it, that’s all. But do yourself a favor sometime and do wade in. You might catch the fever, or you may experience the urge to hurl your tripod over the neighbor’s wall like a javelin of rage.When you don’t have enough light, you’re kind of in free fall.
But even if you don’t stick the landing, it ain’t fatal.