By MICHAEL PERKINS
FEW WOULD DISPUTE THE IDEA that photography forever changed the way we see. However, I also believe it has altered the way we recall. The process of accessing our memories as a reference point for our thoughts and feelings was complex even before the invention of the camera. But add the seemingly “trustworthy” or “authentic” records of things interpreted by photography, though, and the sorting of memory becomes an even greater muddle. Do we remember, or do we recognize, through the inheritance of masses of images, how someone else remembered?
Through the camera, we can confuse our actual sensory experiences of things with the trove of pictures which formed our “versions” of them beyond what we ourselves have lived. Many more of us have viewed photos of the Eiffel Tower than have actually gazed upon it. When we do first encounter a “known” thing in person, one of our first reactions is often that it “isn’t how I pictured it”……that is, our collective photographic “memory” doesn’t match authentic experience.
As photographers, we are trying to see things originally even as we hack our way through the inherited gallery of images of those things that are an unavoidable element of our visual legacy from other photographers. It is damned difficult to develop our own eye, since the after-image of everyone else’s take is always present in our consciousness.
I shot the image shown here in 2011, during a typical package tour of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Part of the circuit was a brief shuttle ride to Ellis on a boat that afforded a long, wide view of lower Manhattan. I shot the picture quite unconsciously, which is to say, oh look at that cool view. Later, in combing through the day’s shoot, I saw something else in the scene, something that connected me to photographs taken generations before me: Alfred Stieglitz’ poignant scenes of newly-arrived immigrants in steerage: grainy silent newsreels of crowded ferries passing the Statue, their passengers’ faces etched with a mixture of terror, longing and joy. Suddenly my own picture was no longer about a pleasure cruise for tourists. It was my chance to take in the same view millions had seen before me: the first glimpse of The Promised Land. The New Start. The Second Chance. And for many, Life Itself.
I had already underexposed the shot somewhat to emphasize the skyline, but the picture still contained too many distracting features on the faces of the passengers. I adjusted the exposure even more and saturated the color to further create the look of a low-light, slow film stock. Their particulars muted, my tourists now replicated the “look” of all those earlier arrivals, the ones I had inherited from other people’s experiences. Had I reached a kind of communion with those millions? Could I be adding my own story to theirs?
Even though I was traveling in the same waters as the people in the archival pictures had traveled, I wasn’t them. As a native-born American, I didn’t face the terrifying pass/fail that they had as they approached our front porch. I wouldn’t come this close, see a life beckoning just beyond that window, and yet be sent back because my eye looked odd to the doctors or my papers were not in order. I found this picture again the other day. I think I have to live inside it for a while. I may not have shot it with the eye of someone new to this country, but the inherited images of lives past have asked me, in my own limited way, to bear witness to the fact that, at some time, we have, all of us, been The Other. I really don’t want to forget that.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PERHAPS, LIKE ME, you keep, within your photographer’s memory, a running total of many, many shots that might have been salvaged, had you only had a few extra moments to plan them better. Any approach to serious picture-making hinges not merely on conceiving an image, nor just having either technical means or talent, but on being able to weigh all one’s options within the constraints of time.
Of course, mastering all other elements of photography, from equipment to raw skill, does allow you to shoot faster, or, more correctly, to make the best use of the time you have. Still, no matter your experience level, there will always be instances where the setting, the light, or other conditions move so quickly that reaction time is minimalized and some shots simply get away. The way I sum this up is to say that we’re trying to create art on a snapshot time budget.
As is often the case, this problem becomes crystal clear in the moment of shooting. Everything about this image began as happenstance. I happened to call on a friend as he was finishing up work for the day. That, in turn, meant that he happened to conduct me to his office’s break room near a sixth-floor window. The final and most crucial bit of chance occurred when he asked me to wait while he went to close out his desk before we headed for dinner, giving me up to ten precious minutes to decide what to do with this amazing view. Ten minutes to try, reject, reframe, rethink…..all without the pressure of worrying if I was keeping anyone waiting, or fretting that the walk light would change and I’d have to move on, or any of a myriad of other picture-killing factors. I had the luxury of lingering.
Of course, I could fill another half-page discussing what I was looking for, or how the five or six frames I shot shaped what I eventually landed on, but that discussion is for another day. What’s important is that the circumstances allowed me the time to set an intention for the picture, to walk it through several iterations until I was comfortable (not an insignificant word) in making a choice.
As you can probably surmise, the purely technical aspects of getting this shot were relatively simple: the true challenge was in mentally massaging the idea of the scene until it, well, looked like a picture, and not having to do so on the fly. We’re forced, all too frequently, to do things by reflex, and so to make a picture at leisure, on purpose…..that, to me, is the very essence of photography.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE ACT OF PUBLISHING A PHOTOGRAPH is roughly equivalent to a lawyer’s closing argument, in that it is an attempt to persuade, to sell an idea. To make his own “case”, a photographer must be fearlessly certain of what he is trying to say, a process that begins with the conviction that what he has frozen in an exposure is the truth, because his eye is a reliable narrator. Lying eye, lying result.
The development of the photographer’s eye is one of two parallel tracks on the road to truthful images, the other being technical mastery. The challenge, then, for the photographer, is in narrowing the gap between what the camera captures and what the eye contends is the essence of the picture. Bear in mind that, between photographer and camera, only one of those things has an imagination. You have to tell the camera what to see in such a way that, as a mere technical measuring device, it has no choice but to obey.
John Szarkowski, the legendary director of photography at the New York Museum of Modern Art and a great shooter in his own right, expressed perfectly the problem that occurs when the eye and the hand are not on the same wavelength:
No mechanism has ever been devised that recorded visual fact so clearly as photography. The consistent flaw in the system has been that it recorded the wrong “facts”: not what we “knew” was there, but what had appeared to be there.
Long story short (and isn’t about time I tried one?) : don’t blame the camera when your vision isn’t realized in the final frame. Either you need a better vision, or a better way of setting up the shot so that the camera can’t help but deliver it. If you don’t turn on the water, the best hose in the world can’t put out a fire.
Stand in front of the court and make your case.
Show us what you see.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN RECENT YEARS THERE HAS BEEN A MOMENTOUS SURGE in the number of photographic optics that market themselves as “art lenses”, as if all other lenses were, what….non-artistic? This murky term essentially denotes lenses that deliver customized or selective focal effects, such as the Lensbaby “sweet spot”, a partial area of sharpness, surrounded by soft blur, that can be placed, at will, at various parts of the frame. Other so-called “art lenses” produce unique patterns of bokeh, or blur artifacts, while yet others produce vignetting, or darkening around the outside corners of the image. Some of these lenses are great overall performers, while a number of them are either one-trick ponies or muy espensivo or both.
Thing is, if you possess a fast “normal” lens, such as a 35 or 50mm “prime”, you can already achieve some of the same effects of many over-hyped proprietary lenses in the “art” arsenal. Primes have but a single focal length and thus have no telephoto function. The photographer frames by physically moving closer to, or farther away from, his subject, by, in effect, “zooming with the feet”. Since their focal range is fixed, primes are extremely simple in their construction, and therefore extremely sharp. In addition, they often will open to at least f/2.8, with many rated at f/1.8 or even faster. And that’s where the arty focus fun starts.
Wide open to f/1.8, the 50mm prime used for this image creates an extremely shallow depth of field. And that can be good news for flattering pics of faces. Primes of this focal length are already prized as portrait lenses, since they produce faces with normal proportions, as opposed to the Silly Putty stretching you get with wide-angles. Add to that a fast prime’s ability to deliver a very buttery transition between sharpness and blur, and you have the potential for a very finely-tuned look. Notice that there is no real hard sharpness in the cat’s face beyond one eye and about one third of his face. The rest rolls off very softly. My point is that nearly any good prime can deliver this effect: it isn’t essential to invest in a custom piece of “art” glass to get it.
One caveat: shooting this far open, at this distance, your auto-focus may endlessly gyrate back and forth trying to find a place to lock in. My advice: go manual. At this DOF, you’ll have to practice with how to nail the focus, and I personally am driven bonkers trying to find the sharpness at f/1.4 or faster: the range is so very razor-thin. Even so, before you pony up for a lens that’s designed to deliver arty focus, play with the primes you already have. You may be delighted. The focus may be shallow, but the satisfaction can run deep.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
GIVEN THAT JOB ONE, FOR A PHOTOGRAPHER, is maximizing his ability to see, it’s worth considering how we unconsciously condition our eyes not to see….to, in a way, confer a sort of invisibility on whole big chunks of the viewable world. It’s not that those chunks can spontaneously vanish on their own: it’s that we, in the act of managing the everyday flood of sensory information, prioritize some data above others. The lowest priority data effectively becomes invisible.
Cities provide an interesting example of this phenomenon, which I term the Invisible Middle. The upper stories of the buildings in a metropolitan are clearly noticed as “treetops”, clusters of skyscrapers easily apprehended from a distance. Equally visible are the bottom, or street-level layers of cities, the door-to-door sequences of businesses that parallel our daily journeys, the very stuff of habit. By contrast, the details of urban life from just above our line of sight all the way up to the spires and crowns of the skyline can become phantom acreage, something our schedule doesn’t demand that we notice.
As one example, the building shown here, 452 Fifth Avenue in New York City, presents a magnificent face to anyone lucky enough to be in a position to crane their neck just a few extra floors above street level. Built in 1902, when a ten-story building was still a big deal in Manhattan, the Knox Building, named for Edmund Knox and the hat factory that made him a millionaire, was an anomaly from the start. Knox decided not to engage just any architect, but to hire John Hemenway Duncan, the man who had designed both the memorial arch at Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza and Grant’s Tomb, an act slightly akin to hiring Frank Lloyd Wright to build you a 7-11. Decades later, however, having survived years of attempts to raze it, the Knox landed on the National Registry, and in the 1980’s, got a new glass tower wrapped around it to make it the crown jewel of a major midtown banking complex. If one of Mr. Knox’ hats were still available, giving it a tip would be an apt gesture of respect.
This particular view was chiefly available to me because I was seven floors up in the building on the other side of Fifth Avenue. Vantage point gave me access to this part of the city’s Invisible Middle, but, more importantly, it left my eye hungry for more, and just a little more trained as to the complete range of places to cast my gaze. Because of this lucky accident, I may, in future, also do other good things….on purpose.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF YOU WANT TO HEAR THE UNIVERSE LAUGH, goes the adage, make a plan. Or, in my specific case, if you want to ensure that pigeons hang around your house forever, make a plan to keep pigeons off the premises.
Start by installing tiny metal spikes in the cross beams right over the entrance to your front door. You’ve seen them, those steely porcupine quills designed to bar entry to all the nooks and crannies where birds love to assemble to conduct aerial assault on your sidewalks. Spikes go up, birds get packing, no cruelty, no pavement poo, everyone’s a winner, right?
And if you buy that story, I have bridge I want to sell you..
But, hey, I’m a humane slob, so I write the check, go for the whole spiny effect atop the house, and look forward to a lifetime of carefree maintenance and lordly leisure. Only someone forgot to send the spike company’s brochure to the curve-billed thrasher who decided to weave twigs between the spikes, further reinforcing his domicile against the elements. And wasn’t it nice of us to build the first phase of his nest for him? Sure, we’re swell that way.
So no pigeons living above the entrance, but still birds. Small hitch in the plan, however: Mama Thrasher isn’t a hit with the Neighborhood Watch Association (Avian Division) and leaves town. And here we see the fates in all their sadistic genius: a mother pigeon moves into my “pigeon-free” zone like a hobo in a rail car and proceeds to lay her own eggs. The circle of life is now complete!
So, as anyone wise enough to realize when he’s licked, I resolve to at least photograph this grand cosmic joke. Only the act of my going in and out of my front door each day spooks Mrs. Pudge to flight, and so it takes nearly a week to sneak a shot of her in residence……an ordinary, unchallenging, Photo 101 shot that a toddler could make, if only Nature can stop laughing at me long enough to say cheese.
Obviously, with this kind of outcome, I will not be rushing to bear-proof the back yard. Now if you’ll excuse me, the flowers could us a soaking rain, so I’m off to get my car washed.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE FIRST DECADES OF PHOTOGRAPHY, like the earliest years of any emerging art, operated under a different set of rules than those we set for ourselves today. More accurately, we may now operate in a world in which there are no immutable rules at all. It’s hard to imagine a book with the title Why It Does Not Have To Be In Focus being published in, say, 1865.
When a different way of viewing the world comes mostly through a technical breakthrough (i.e., the invention of the camera), it can understandably be regarded, at least at first, as a measuring or recording device, a way of creating a merely physical chronicle of the world. Thus a camera can initially be regarded like a microscope or a seismograph….as a way of quantifying data…. which is precisely how early cameras were seen. Catalogue the great statesmen and authors for the ages! Assemble a library of images of the ancient world! Map the continent!
And so the first rules of photography bent toward the scientific. Make an accurate record. Not surprisingly, it took decades for picture-taking to be freed from the constraints of mere reality (as painting already was) and move toward the making of pictures, as photography eventually became an interpretive art. I often wonder if this explains why, of all the various subjects available to me, I am less comfortable in landscape work than in any other area.
There seems to be no way of escaping the pure recording function of it. I feel constrained to make it accurate, as if it’s for an official government survey, or as though I were being graded on the results by some imperious professor. I know the problem lies with me. I seem anchored to the idea of rendering scenery “real” (I hate that word), when, in fact, I could exercise just as much interpretative control over it that I do over everything else I shoot.
Is the shot shown here less real for having been partially defocused, or is it more personal because I have gently asked you to look at the subject in my own way? Do I really even have to ask these questions? Quite obviously, the rules of photography as we understand them are no longer based on pure science. Yes, it is “about” the lenses, to a degree, but it’s more completely about the human eye. We are not machines, nor should our art be purely the product of machines.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHIC COMPOSITION is never the mere geographic assignment of elements within a frame. Certainly, mapping out what is to go up, down, left, or right in a picture is a vital part of the process, but you have to do more than rearrange the deck chairs. You also have to make real decisions about where the ship is sailing.
Aperture, focus, the use of light…..make up your own list of contributing factors… the assembly of a composition is about setting the terms of engagement between your vision and the eyes of the audience. It is never merely about the limits or contents within the frame. This means that a picture that you would shoot in a certain way today may seem completely out of synch with your thinking a year from now, because your idea of composition will (and should) be in constant flux.
In my own case, I have spent a lot of the last five years re-evaluating focus, deciding in many more cases to use it selectively, where, previously, I might have applied it more evenly. This is an exploratory journey, and I am not sure where it will wind up. I don’t really feel as if I’m abandoning sharpness per se, just trying to decide how much of it I need in a given situation, making its use a lot more intentional choice than it has historically been for me.
Focus is a way of prioritizing the visual elements in a picture. It cues the audience as to what information there is and how hard to look to retrieve it. It also tells if there is no object or “mission” in a picture, as in a totally abstract arrangement. Photographer Uta Barth, describing why practically all of her work is deliberately refocused, notes that “the question, for me, is how I can make you more aware of your activity of looking. I value confusion…”
Indeed, placing incomplete information before a viewer, about focus or anything else in a photograph, is inviting him/her into an interaction…..with all parties having a conversation about what a picture means. For the viewer, it means exercising more control: for the photographer, who no longer has to spell everything out, it can be freeing.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY PHOTOGRAPH REMOVES SOMETHING from its original context, extracting it from its proper place in the world at large. In the act of placing things in a frame, the photographer excludes whatever else once surrounded that thing, so that, in the final result, a vast valley is reduced to one tree in one part of one meadow. Our mind stipulates to the supporting reality of whatever was extracted, and we either approve or disapprove of the shooter’s arbitrary editorial choice in composing the frame.
And so pictures often annihilate an object’s “origin story”, since we can’t often search them to view what something “came from”. Objects in a photograph merely are, with little obvious evidence of what they used to be. Sometimes that means that, when we do see where something originated, a picture of it can seem exotic or strange. And, as photographers, we can train ourselves to find that one view of a thing that has been, in effect, under-explored.
In the above picture, something that we tend to think of as being organically “born” in a natural setting (i.e., a cactus) is shown being deliberately farmed within a controlled environment (i.e., a greenhouse). It looks a little wrong, a bit strange…..certainly not typical. And yet, an interesting picture can be made from the scene, simply because we never see a cactus’ origin story, given that most photographs don’t select that story within their frames. This picture really doesn’t display its information in an original fashion: it’s the thing, in this particular context, that makes the photograph seem novel.
As always, the choices made inside and outside the frame of a photograph set the narrative for it. It’s therefore the most important choice a photographer can make.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I AM NEVER TRULY COMFORTABLE working with a camera that isn’t physically locked onto my eye. Shooting without a viewfinder was, for me, perhaps the hardest part of gradually embracing cel photography, and continues to be a control issue that still inclines me toward my Nikons most of the time. Part of it, I freely admit, is mere sentimental habit……maybe even, who knows, superstition?…..and yet when I’m crammed up against that little square of glass, I feel as if I’m “really” taking a picture.
That’s why it’s really a rare bird for me to “shoot from the hip” with a DSLR, to try to sneak a street candid without my camera anywhere near my face at all, holding the thing at mid-chest or waist level or even squeezing off a frame while it’s hanging from my shoulder. If the opportunity is literally too juicy to resist, and if looking like a (gasp) photographer will spook my quarry (or get a Coke thrown in my face), well, then, desperate times call for desperate measures.
I arrived at such a “desperate times” moment the other day by being caught out with the wrong lens. I had thought that I would be spending my afternoon at a horse show inside barns and stables, indicating a wide-angle to open up cramped spaces, so I packed a 24mm to go wide but keep distortion to a minimum. Once Marian and I arrived at the event, however, she got interested in an arena competition, and so in we went. Now I’m taking big shots of a cavernous hall punctuated by long lines of little tiny horses. If a rider lopes directly in front of my seat, I can almost make out his face. Otherwise I’m zoomless and story-less. Can we go home now?
I hear a husky female drawl off to the left.
“Jus’ let her walk, Annie. She wants to walk.”
Turns out the voice belongs to a spangled matron with a Texas twang sharp enough to chop cheddar, herself apparently just off the competition track and now shouting guidelines to another woman in the field. I immediately fall in love with this woman, hypnotized by her steely stare, her no-nonsense focus, and the fact that, unlike the far-away formations of horses directly in front of me, she is a story. A story I need to capture.
But any visible sign of guy-with-a-camera will ruin it all. I will swing into the range of her peripheral vision. Her concentration will break. Worse, the change in her face will make the story all about the intrusive jerk six feet away. And so I hug the camera to the middle of my chest, the lens turned generally in her direction. Of course I have no reliable way to compose the shot, so I spend the next several minutes shooting high, low, losing her completely in the frame, checking results after every click, and finally settling on the image you see here, which, despite my “calculations” for a level horizon, looks a bit like a shot from the old Batman tv series. Holy carsickness.
Strangely, shooting at actual horses (at least with the glass I brung) was telling me nothing about horse culture. But the lady with the spangly blouse and Stetson got me there. It’s literally her beat, and I was grateful to, yes, sneak a glimpse at it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
VAN LINES USED TO GIVE OUT SMALL GRIDDED PAPER SQUARES that prospective customers could use as room diagrams for the planning of their next homes. The fancier versions even came with pre-cut geometric shapes that you could place on the squares, to see if the couch would look good next to the settee, or whether the piano should go along the north wall. It was like paper dolls for easy chairs and coffee tables.
I recall those squares whenever I’m trying to photographically visualize the optimum composition of large spaces, especially if I’m lucky enough to do so from an elevated spot. Immense rooms start to look like rectangles within rectangles, squares butted up against other squares. Dividing lines between action and dead space begin to appear. Cropping parameters suggest one scheme, then argue for another. With enough time, a kind of strategy emerges for what should go where, much like those intricate battle maps used to illustrate the engagements in Ken Burns’ The Civil War.
The balance of “live” and “dead” space in public gathering places (like the museum seen here) has to carefully organized, since both kinds of space have their own special narrative power, and can intrude on each other if not orchestrated. In the above image, it’s almost as if the active roles by the tourists on the right ought to be contained, in order to avoid disturbing the abstract patterns on the left. A different method might also see the entire outer frame as a series of smaller squares and rectangles, just as a chessboard is a square composed of an infinite number of lesser squares. Depends on your eye.
Composition, if done at leisure rather than haste, is a negotiation, a bargaining session in which every inch of photographic real estate must earn its place in the final picture. It’d be glib to merely say “there’s no right answer”, but, if you look at images resulting from certain choices, it becomes apparent that such a statement cannot be true. Right will feel right. Wrong will always feel like you put the piano in front of the picture window. Not horrible… but not correct, either.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
HUMANS HAVE A DEFINITE ANTHROPOMORPHIC BIAS when it comes to faces. From dancing Disney flowers to Pixar office lamps, we tend to project our features onto nearly every kind of object or entity. And, as a photographer, I fall prey to that selfsame bias, especially when it comes to making pictures of buildings.
It’s isn’t much of a stretch, really. Windows become eyes. Doors assume the role of both noses and mouths. Overhangs and pitched rooves take on the appearance of eyebrows. And so on. For a variety of reasons, I tend to position houses in the same way I might shoot the most basic human portrait. Eyes facing straight toward the camera, face centered in the shot. No arty angles, no three quarter views. As clinical as a mug shot, or, in architectural terms, the plainspoken exposition of Walker Evans’ studies of houses and businesses in days of the New Deal.
And, like the aforementioned mug shot, I tend to frame the picture as close as I dare without sacrificing either context or impact. Again, the human face is the template, with the same decisions to be made about cropping. Do you need the top of the hair, the width of both ears? Should the shot stop at the bottom of the chin? Below the shoulders? Does any surrounding information add to the selling of the picture?
Does the traditional rectangular framing of the house in the top shot feel roomy, or merely loose? Is the square re-cropping of the same image, seen just overhead, simplified, or cramped? If the front of a building truly has the same potential impact as that of a face, it would follow that a building study might benefit from the same compositional criteria. That means that, like a face, a building has to earn every inch it occupies within the frame.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHING CROWDS IS SOMEWHAT AKIN to using one’s camera to track a billowing cloud of soap suds. The shape of the mass shifts constantly, roiling this way and that, presenting the shooter with an ever-evolving range of choices. Is this the shape that delivers the story? Or does this arrangement of shapes do it?
And is just the size of the overall crowd the main visual message….with the perfect picture merely showing a giant jumble of bodies? Plenty of great images have been made that convey a narrative with just mass or scale. But throngs are also collections of individuals. Can’t a compelling tale also be told focusing on the particular?
When shooting any large gathering, be it a festival, a party or a demonstration, I am torn between the spectacle of the “cast of thousands” type shot and the tinier stories to be had at the personal level. In the shot seen below, I was following a parade, actually behind the traditional approach to such an event. What arrested my attention from this vantage point was the printed shawl of the woman directly ahead of me. The graphic on the shawl had been seen on other flags and banners in the march, but, billowing in the breeze on her back, the print became a kind of uniform for the march… a theme, a face all its own.
In this context, I didn’t need to see the actual expressions of the marchers: there was enough information in their body language, especially if I composed to place the woman at the center of the shot, as if she were the leader. That was enough. The actual march boasted thousands, but I didn’t need to show them all. The essence of everyone’s intentions could be shown by the assemblage of small parts.
Some crowd photographs speak loudly by showing the sheer volume of participants on hand. Others show us the special energies of individuals. Neither approach is universally sufficient, and you’ll have to see which is better for the narrative you’re trying to relate in a particular moment.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE CONCEPT OF THE STILL–LIFE is one of the most malleable in all of photography. Pore over enough image anthologies and you’ll see the term applied to every type of conglomeration of objects. Scale doesn’t matter, nor do either complexity or simplicity.
Story, however, does.
Annie Liebowitz’ massive shot of the cluttered interior of singer Pete Seeger’s workshop, jammed with tools, scraps and other glorious geegaws, forms a rich phantom portrait of the absent master. On the other end of the spectrum, the simple, classic bowl of fruit can suggest a time, a mood, and a place, all within the space of a few square inches. A still life is most eloquent when it implies existences without actually showing them. There is a life in these things. The photographer leaves behind clues as to whose.
I tend to feel the presence of people in empty rooms. I’m not saying I see apparitions of dead folks. The sensation is more like what I imagine Sherlock Holmes might experience when initially arriving upon a crime scene. To the great fictional sleuth, all rooms fairly scream out their stories: every stick of furniture, every scrap of food, every scattered book testifies in some way. Of course, photographs eventually prove that there is no such thing in nature as an “empty room”. Human activity leaves an after-image: we don’t scrub a place of evidence just because we physically leave it. Effective still-lifes recover part of that ethereal data.
It’s a great exercise in minimalism to see how little you need to show in a still life of a room and still suggest a narrative. It’s not necessary to tell the entire story. You need only pique your viewer’s curiosity as to what might have happened, or what the potential plot line of the scene could be. Photography, after all, is an interpretive art, and only a percentage of a place’s “reality” ever makes it into the frame. A still life, from Pete’s workshop to the bowl of fruit, is all about extrapolating from the seen to the unseen. If you’re lucky, someone outside yourself will see what you see.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY’S FIRST HUGE SURGE OF POPULARITY served notice on the painting world that there would, going forward, be more than one way to capture the human essence in a portrait. Initially dismissed as a mere recording device by panicky daubers the world over, the camera soon earned a place at the table by revealing just as much of the inner souls of its subjects as even the most trained brush, albeit by different roads. One of these, of course, was the eye, characterized as “the window to the soul.” To some, it seemed that painters merely drew your gaze to the eye, whereas the camera drilled straight through it.
Whether you share that view or shrink in horror from it, the fact is that generations of technical treatises have centered on the vital importance of engaging the eye in portraits: getting the right “catch light” spark reflected in it, making it the primary focus of the face, even zeroing out sharpness in the entire frame except in the orb’s immediate vicinity. It’s accepted wisdom that the eye sells the face and the face sells the picture. But what of faces that have another kind of story?
In the above image, we are, as viewers, denied access to the birdwatcher’s eyes, unless you interpret her binoculars as a kind of abstract substitute. But does that make the picture not a portrait? Using every other feature and prop available to the shooter, is there insufficient evidence to properly tell her story? Are we at all uncertain of her intent, enthusiasm, state of mind? Is her zeal any less obvious without those windows to the soul in sight? Or to think of it another way, would the picture have any greater narrative power if her eyes were visible?
Portraits are certainly anchored by their most provocative features, riveting our gaze to precise points of drama as urged by talented photographers. However, that list of elements is not absolute, any more than a blue sky is an absolute for a painter. Faces can spell out a message in upper-case neon letters or whisper it in muted shadows. But other than that, everything else is on the table. Portraits are a process, not a recipe.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU DON’T HAVE TO KNOW all the elements of a story to tell it visually. Yes, photography certainly has the technical means to tell a detailed tale, but that narrative need not be spelled out in every particular by the camera.
Indeed, it might be the very information that’s “missing” that may be the most compelling element of a visual story. That is to say, if you don’t know all the facts, make the picture. And if you do have all the facts, maybe leave out a few…. and make the picture anyway.
The above image illustrates this strange mis-match between storytelling and story material. As a shooter, I’m tantalizingly close to the couple at the table next door to me at a plaza restaurant. I mean, I can practically count the salt grains on the lady’s salad. I can also tell, by her male companion’s hand gestures, that a lively conversation is underway. But that is the sum total of what I know. I can’t characterize the discussion. A business planner? A lover’s quarrel? Closing the sale? Sharing some gossip? Completely unknown. Sure, I could strain to pick up a word here or there, but that alone may not be enough to provide any additional context, and, in fact, I don’t need that information to make a picture.
This is what I call “low info, high narrative”, because I don’t require all the facts of this scene to sell the message of the picture, which is conversation. As a matter of fact, my having to leave out part of the image’s backstory might actually broaden the appeal of the final product, since the viewer is now partnering with me to provide his/her version of what that story might be. It’s like my suggesting the face of a witch. By merely using words like ugly or horrible, I’ve placed you in charge of the “look” of the witch. You’ve provided a vital part of the picture.
You won’t always have the luxury of knowing everything about what you’re photographing. And, thankfully, it doesn’t really matter a damn. That’s why we call this process making a picture. We aren’t merely passive recorders, but active, interpretive storytellers. High narrative beats low info every time.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE MOST REVOLUTIONARY ACTS a photographer can commit is the thwarting of expectation, a deliberate subverting of what the viewer assumes will happen next. Composition-wise, this means not just deciding what information makes it into the frame, but, indeed, whether there will even be a frame at all.
Any demarcation or line within an image can be used to direct attention to a given location. Whether including or excluding, pointing toward or pointing away from, the photographer has pretty much limited authority on how he’ll direct traffic within a composition. And so we shoot through holes, slats, panes, and skylights. We observe borders marked by cast shadows: we cut spaces in half to make two rooms out of one: we reveal facts in parts of reflections while obscuring the objects they reflect.
In the above image, I saw the subdivisions of the department store display unit like a wall of little tv’s, each screen showing its own distinct mini-drama. Is the woman seen eyeing the merchandise the most prominent “screen star”, or are we just seeing an arbitrary mosaic of the larger scene behind the display? Or is it both?
Framing within the larger frame of a composition can isolate and boost whatever message we’ve chosen to convey, and it’s perhaps the most total control a photographer can wield, more so in its way than even exposure or lighting.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
A BREAK IN THE ACTION: a word from our sponsor: a coda before the chorus. Intrusions into the predictable rhythms of things can be either annoying or refreshing, depending on how we perceive them.
The right intervals between dots and dashes can drastically change the meaning of a telegram. A well-placed silence between musical notes can generate just the tension required to transform a composition into a masterpiece. And a sudden interruption in visual patterns can add impact to a photograph.
Once the eye detects, as they say on Sesame Street, that one of the things in a picture is not like the others, it pauses, re-evaluating every element in the scene, weighing it for relative value. Breaking an image’s pattern is either an unwelcome invasion or a kind of visual punctuation….again, varying as to the effect. The object violating the uniformity says pause, wait, re–consider, and begins a new conversation about what we’re seeing and what we think about it.
In the above picture, a human silhouette against the massive ceiling grid provides the basic context of scale, and defines the locale (a library) as a space where human activity takes place. The figure thus says how big the place is and what it is for, along with any other ancillary associations touched off in the viewer’s mind. Would the picture “work” without the figure? Certainly. The terms of engagement would just be different, that’s all.
Photographs are not merely pictures of things. They are also sets of instructions (suggestions?) on what to do with all that information. Think of them like roadside signs. It’s indeed helpful to be told, for example, that Sacramento is just another 100 miles away. But it’s just as important to have a big bright arrow telling you to head that–away.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
VISITOR ATTRACTIONS CREATE THEIR OWN KIND OF PECULIAR GRAVITY, in that many of them develop an “official” way to take in their delights, pulling you toward what they believe to be the center of things. From the creation of tourist maps to the arrangement of signs on paths, many famous “places to see” evolve systems for how to “do” parks, recreation areas, even ancient ruins. Some hot spots have even been so obvious as to mount signage right next to the “Kodak moment” view that, of course, you will want to to snap, since everybody does. And from here, folks, you can clearly see the royal castle, the original temple, the stunning mountain vista, etc., etc.
But predictability, or an approved way of seeing a particular thing, is the death of spontaneity, and certainly a danger signal for any kind of creativity. Photography is the visual measure of our subjective experience. It’s supposed to be biased toward our individual way of taking a thing in. Grading our reactions to visual stimuli on the curve, taking us all down the same path of recommended enjoyment, actually obviates the need for a camera. Just freeze the “correct” view on the gift store’s postcard assortment, and, presto, we can all have the same level of enjoyment. Or the same low point of banality.
Recently I visited the amazing Butchart Gardens, a botanical bonanza on the island of Victoria in British Columbia. If ever there was a place where you’d be tempted to tick off “the sights” on a mental checklist, this cornucopia of topiary choreography is it, and you will find it truly tempting not to attempt your “take” on its most photographed features. But an experience is not a triptych, and I found my favorite moments were near the fringes or niches of the property, many of which are as stunning as the most traveled wonders along the approved paths.
To my great surprise, my favorite shot from the tour wasn’t one of the major sites or even a color image, but a quick glimpse of a young girl hesitating in the narrow, arched portal that separated one side of an enormous hedge from the other. She only hesitated for a few seconds before walking into the more traveled courtyard just adjacent, which is, itself, recorded thousands of times a day. But that brief pause was enough. She had become, to me, Alice, dawdling on the edge of a new Wonderland. The arch became all mystery to me, but the picture needed to be simplified to amplify that feeling, relegating the bright hues to secondary status. And while it indeed seems counterintuitive to take a black and white image in the midst of one of the world’s great explosions of color, I gladly chose the mono version once I had the chance to compare it to the original. Some things just work.
One thing that never works is trying to make your personal photographs conform with what the designer of a public place has recommended as the essential features of that place. Your camera is just that….your camera. Shoot with someone else’s eye, and you might as well just frame the brochure.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
COMPOSITION IN PHOTOGRAPHY WOULD BE A SNAP (sorry) if the camera actually possessed not just an eye, but also a brain. But that’s where you come in.
When the human eye takes in a scene, the brain automatically ranks all the information within it, basically making a composition of priority. We “see” some things and “don’t see” others, based on how our grey matter ranks the importance of everything in our field of vision. A camera cannot make these fine decisions: it merely makes a light record of what it’s pointed at. That accounts for the fact that our “perfect” landscape, the one we ourselves recalled from the first day of vacation, comes back, in a mere photo, complete with electrical wires, distracting signs, junk near the beach, and any other number of things our brains filtered out of the original viewing experience.
Composition is thus a matter of our deliberately arranging things by priority, making an argument for our audience to Look Here First, Only Look Here, Give Greater Weight To This Over That, or any other messaging we desire. In sales terms, it’s what pitchmen call Asking For The Order. Simply, composing a photograph means setting the terms of engagement for the viewer’s eye.
With still-life photographs, the shooter has the greatest degree of control and responsibility. After all, our subject is stationary, easily moved and arranged to our whim. You pretty much are lord of your domain. That being said, it’s wise to use this luxury of time and control to envision as many ways as possible to convey your message. The image at the top of this page, for example, is crowded, but the nut shells and the unshelled nuts are a study in textural contrast. There’s lots of color and detail, with one side being somewhat blanched while the other is rough and complex. That’s one way of making the image.
For comparison, in the second frame, the terms of engagement are completely different. The pile of shells at left is more sharply contrasted with the single nut at right. The nut carries the only vivid color in the image; it’s an outlier, a misfit…maybe the last man/nut standing? The simplification of the composition lets it breathe a little, allowing the viewer to speculate, invent. Are the shells symbolic of a mound of nuts that have already been polished off in some grand snacking orgy? Why was one lone nut left to tell the tale? And so on.
Change the arrangement of subjects in a scene and you’ve changed the terms of narration, or even insisted that there is no narration, just patterns, light, or abstraction. Whichever path you choose, no composition comes to the camera “ready to eat”, as it were. You have to tell your camera’s mechanical eye what to see, and how to see it.