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
SHOW ME A HOLIDAY SEASON AND I’LL SHOW YOU PEOPLE WAITING FOR SOMETHING TO HAPPEN. They form lines for special orders, last-minute items, a kid’s brief audience with Santa. They hope to bump someone on a flight, beat someone out of a bargain, talk someone into a discount, refund or exchange. But mostly, they wait.
For as many festive holiday subjects that dance before the photographer’s eye, there are many more scenarios in which nothing much happens but..the waiting. And, while this seemingly endless hanging-out never offers images that define joy or wonder, they are fodder to the street shooter within us, the guy looking for stories. Stories of tired feet. Tales of people who can’t get a connecting flight ’til tomorrow at the earliest. Sagas of mislaid plans and misbegotten presents. Folklore of folks who are lost, lonely, disappointed, and down. In short, all of us, at various times.
Transit points are often among the most poignant during the season, with legions of faces that plead, what’ll I get for her? How will I get all the way down this list? How soon can I get home? Your best bet? Hang at the train stations, the port authorities, the airports, and hear the plaintive strains of I’ll Be Home For Christmas sung in the key of ‘as if’. Seek out those aches, that weariness, the many false starts and stumbling finishes of the holidays. And keep your camera ready, hungry for whatever visions dance in your head.
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
I IMAGINE THAT, IF SOMEONE UN-INVENTED CHRISTMAS, the entire history of personal photography might be compressed into about twenty minutes. I mean, be honest, was there ever a single event or phase of human experience for which more images were clicked than the holiday season? Just given the sheer number of cameras that were found under the tree and given their first test drive right then and there, you’d have one of the greatest troves of personal, and therefore irreplaceable, images in modern history.
Holidays are driven by very specific cues, emotional and historical.
We always get this kind of tree and we always put it in this corner of the room. I always look for the ornament that is special to me, and I always hang it right here. Oh, this is my favorite song. What do you mean, we’re not having hot chocolate? We can’t open presents until tomorrow morning. We just don’t, that’s all.
If, during the rest of our year, “the devil’s in the details”, that is, that any little thing can make life go wrong, then, during the holidays, the angel’s in the details, since nearly everything conspires to make existence not only bearable, but something to be longed for, mulled over, treasured in age. Photographs seem like the most natural of angelic details, since they lend a gauzy permanence to memory, freezing the surprised gasp, the tearful reunion, the shared giggle.
As the years roll on, little is recalled about who got what sweater or who stood longest in line at GreedMart trying to get the last Teddy Ruxpin in North America. Instead, there are those images…in boxes, in albums, on hard drives, on phones. Oh, look. He was so young. She looks so happy. That was the year Billy came home as a surprise. That was the last year we had Grandma with us. Look, look, look.
So remember, always….the greatest gifts you’ll ever receive aren’t under the tree.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT IS A SEASON OF LIGHT AND COLOR, perhaps one of the key times of the year for all things illuminated, burning, blazing and glowing. It is a time when opportunities for vivid and brilliant images explode from every corner.
And one way to unleash all that light is to manage darkness.
One example: your family Christmas tree involves more delicate detail, tradition and miniature charm than any other part of your home’s holiday decor, but it often loses impact in many snapshots, either blown out in on-camera flash or underlit with a few colored twinkles surrounded by a blob of piny silhouette.
How about a third approach: go ahead and turn off all the lights in the room except those on the tree, but set up a tripod and take a short time exposure.
It’s amazing how easy this simple trick will enhance the overall atmosphere. With the slightly slow exposure, the powerful tree LEDs have more than enough oomph to add a soft glow to the entire room, while acting as a multitude of tiny fill lights for the shaded crannies within the texture of the tree. Ornaments will be softly and partially lit, highlighting their design details and giving them a slightly dimensional pop.
In fact, the LED’s emit such strong light that you only want to make the exposure slow enough to register them. The above image was taken at 1/16 of a second, no longer, so the lights don’t have time to “burn in” and smear. And yes, some of you highly developed humanoids can hand-hold a shot steadily at that exposure, so see what works for you. You could also, of course, shoot wide open to f/1.8 if you have a prime lens, making things even easier, but you might run into focus problems at close range. You could also just jack up your ISO and shoot at a more manageable shutter speed, but in a darkened room you’re trading off for a lot of noise in the areas beyond the tree. Dealer’s choice.
Lights are a big part of the holidays, and mastery of light is the magic that delivers the mystery. Have fun.
“But you were always a good man of business”, faltered Scrooge.
“Business!”, cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business! Charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of MY BUSINESS!!”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN FORWARD COMBAT AREAS, CHRISTMAS IS NOT SO MUCH A CELEBRATION as a cessation of hostilities. We have all seen those poignant scenes from war movies in which, at the tolling of the midnight bell on the 25th, combatants from both sides, some within mere feet of each other, lay down their arms, share a smoke, a snort of whiskey, even a song, before resuming the slaughter. Such cinematic schmaltz is both touching….and infuriating.
Touching…..because it’s a comfort to think that our essential humanity cannot be totally submerged in madness. Infuriating……because we never learn how to extend, export, and explore such episodes of humanity. We make our way through the world as if we had no choice but to heed whatever animal urges see fit to boil up in us in the moment.
We act as if we are helpless to choose anything but our own destruction.
That self-imposed fake destiny was never in greater evidence than in the recently completed year. Use any yardstick you want. Animosity, brutality, stupidity, selfishness, heedlessness…we bounced and ricocheted off each one like the proverbial bull in a shop. But instead of merely smashing china, we smashed lives…or, more importantly, cut them short, as if this were just the way of the world and we were merely unanchored flotsam on a churning sea of fate.
The pure punishment of the events of 2012 has recently sent me looking through my images for this year in search of peace. Maybe not peace in its perfection, but something to look upon which betokens calm, silence, a cessation of hostilities. I am not frequently at my family home for Christmas, and those visits that I do make during the winter months may or may not have the classic visual trappings one looks for during the season. The above picture was actually taken in February, with a scant amount of snow on the ground, the bare trees from my father’s back lot providing a stark landscape, and his next nearest neighbor’s house beckoning as the next best hope of refuge. Or so it looks to me, looking back. It’s a lonely little scene, but over the past few weeks, the quiet of it has meant everything to me. And not because I’m the one who shot it.
Maybe making it to that next warm, safe house is all any of us longs for. Maybe it represents how far off the mark we have wandered during the year. Maybe it’s like Robert Frost’s definition of “home” as the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in. In any event, I hope you all can find a picture somewhere that, for you, marks a place to reflect, catch your breath, and, just for a moment, stop shooting at that other guy just a few feet away.
I also intend to pray for something a little more lasting.
And while it would take an old-fashioned Christmas Miracle to get to that place……well, what else are prayers for?
- Heavenly Peace – At Least In Canada (maxredline.typepad.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CHRISTMAS IS SO BIG THAT IT CAN AFFORD TO GO SMALL. Photographers can, of course, tackle the huge themes….cavernous rooms bursting with gifts, sprawling trees crowning massive plazas, the lengthy curve and contour of snowy lanes and rustic rinks…..there are plenty of vistas of, well, plenty. However, to get to human scale on this most superhuman of experiences, you have to shrink the frame, tighten the focus to intimate details, go to the tiny core of emotion and memory. Those things are measured in inches, in the minute wonder of things that bear the names little, miniature, precious.
And, as in every other aspect of holiday photography, light, and its successful manipulation, seals the deal.
In recent years I have turned away from big rooms and large tableaux for the small stories that emanate from close examination of corners and crannies. The special ornament. The tiny keepsake. The magic that reveals itself only after we slow down, quiet down, and zoom in. In effect, you have to get close enough to read the “Rosebud” on the sled.
Through one life path and another, I have not been “home” (that is, my parents’ home) for Christmas for many years now. This year, I broke the pattern to visit early in December, where the airfare was affordable, the overall scene was less hectic and the look of the season was visually quiet, if no less personal. It became, for me, a way to ease back into the holidays as an experience that I’d laid aside for a long time.
A measured re-entry.
I wanted to eschew big rooms and super-sized layouts to concentrate on things within things, parts of the scene. That also went for the light, which needed to be simpler, smaller, just enough. Two things in my parents’ house drew me in: several select branches of the family tree, and one small part of my mother’s amazing collection of nutcrackers. In both cases, I had tried to shoot in both daylight and general night-time room light. In both cases, I needed some elusive tool for enhancement of detail, some way to highlight texture on a very muted scale.
Call it turning up the magic.
As it turned out, both subjects were flanked by white mini-lights, the tree lit exclusively by white, the nutcrackers assembled on a bed of green with the lights woven into the greenery. The short-throw range of these lights was going to be all I would need, or want. All that was required was to set up on a tripod so that exposures of anywhere from one to three seconds would coax color bounces and delicate shadows out of the darkness, as well as keeping ISO to an absolute minimum. In the case of the nutcrackers, the varnished finish of many of the figures, in this process, would shine like porcelain. For many of the tree ornaments, the looks of wood, foil, glitter, and fabric were magnified by the close-at-hand, mild light. Controlled exposures also kept the lights from “burning in” and washing out as well, so there was really no down side to using them exclusively.
Best thing? Whole project, from start to finish, took mere minutes, with dozens of shots and editing choices yielded before anyone else in the room could miss me.
And, since I’d been away for a while, that, along with starting a new tradition of seeing, was a good thing.
- How to Take a Picture of Your Christmas Tree (purdueavenue.com)