By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE BASIC STRUCTURE OF A LINEAR STORY IS ENGRAVED into the DNA of our collective minds in what amounts, essentially, to three words: beginning, middle, end. Three distinct phases that indicate the birth, development, and logical terminus of a narrative. You start at the left and end up at the right, like the eye reading a written sentence. That’s storytelling in a nutshell.
But are all three elements present in a photograph?
As a static moment stolen from a million zillion consecutive other moments, a frozen instant plucked out of context, a photo is, almost of necessity, missing some of the standard elements of a narrative. The shooter cannot take us on a complete journey from beginning to end. Instead, he must choose one part of that sequential timeline and make it speak for the entire process. And so we make pictures of things that are just getting under way. We make different pictures of things that are in the process of progressing or changing. We make still others of things that are coming to a close. What we choose to show affects the conversation we are having with our audience. Will they understand what point in the continuum of a story we’ve chosen to display? Does their imagination or memory supply missing information about what’s not shown, through speculation, intuition? Pictures can’t show everything, nor do all pictures even show the same kind of information. However, over generations of transactions between shooter and viewer, there is a kind of understood, if unspoken language of what was meant and what was received.
This exchange is instantaneous and instinctive, but we can step back and analyze it. For example, in the above photo, what information is given, and what is withheld? Are we at the entrance into something, or near the escape out of it? Is this a scene of quiet serenity or dark foreboding? Is there a correct answer? Does there need to be?
You and you alone control the choices, often made in an instant, of what visually makes it into the final edition of a photograph. Some of those choices will be deliberate. Others will be reactive. Photographers can either conceal or reveal, and their editorial decisions, whether done at leisure or in a blink, determine what pictures we regard as memorable, or visceral, or genuine. What I’m getting at here is that storytelling is only partly about equipment, or even conditions, like light or weather. And that only makes sense: it would be foolish, after all, to think of a novel as great merely because of which pencil or keypad the author used, or to judge a musical performance by the piano. And so the most crucial element in photography must, must, must be the eye. Once that is sharpened, storytelling hits full throttle, and, conversely, without that acuity, all we can hope for is the occasional happy accident. No one picture tells the entire story, but we are in charge of what clues make it to the viewer. And that is one amazing superpower.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE MAIN OBJECTIVE OF THE NORMAL EYE has always been to promote mindfulness in the making of photographs, to be engaged in the why of images more than the mere how of mechanical technique. This is, I continue to believe, the correct emphasis. Learning how to operate a camera is a fairly short-term thing: figuring out what to do with the thing can take a lifetime.
As a sidebar to all that, TNE also was designed to suggest how photographic ideas might be developed, illustrated by the use of links to image galleries organized around selected themes. The idea here wasn’t so much to show off my own “greatest hits” as it was an attempt to demonstrate potential approaches. The image galleries are not a portfolio, nor are they auditions: they’re just examples. Like everything else used as an illustration in the pages of TNE, they’re supposed to act as a point of departure or discussion fodder.
I usually accompany the publication of new gallery pages with a preamble like this to reinforce the idea that this forum is about batting ideas back and forth, not earning my pictures blue ribbons. That said, I had a great deal of fun this week looking back at the last three years of photos from various trips to New York, my favorite playground, corralling a handful of them under the new tab Small Slices From A Big Apple, which, beginning today, you’ll find in the menu at the top of this page. Obviously, with such a vast subject, no photographer can ever consider himself “done”. However, that’s no reason not to make a start.
As usual, The Normal Eye is less about what I have done and more about what you will do. All we do around here is tee up ideas. The follow-up strokes are up to you.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
BIRTHDAYS. Glibly speaking, ya can’t live without ’em.
Thing is, after a while they don’t come alone. More and more, they show up accompanied by echoes. Ghosts. Remains and remnants. And the guest lists of Things That Were that trundle alongside all those birthdays often focus on buildings, structures that are barometers of where we started out and where we wound up.
The image above was taken within days of this year’s natal anniversary, and put me in mind of one of the most eloquent musings ever on the subject of loss from singer–songwriter Judy Collins. Looking at this sad, sagging house, I could clearly hear her singing:
My grandmother’s house is still there, but it isn’t the same
A plain wooden cottage, a patch of brown lawn
And a fence that hangs standing and sighing in the Seattle rain
I drive by with strangers and wish they could see what I see
A tangle of summer birds flying in sunlight
A forest of lilies, an orchard of apricot trees
Secret gardens of the heart
Where the flowers bloom forever
I see you shining through the night
In the ice and snow of winter
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S NOT UNFAIR TO ARGUE THAT MOST MAJOR PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE FAR MORE ELOQUENT with their lenses than with their tongues. The fact that their eyes speak volumes is what distinguishes them as artists, not whatever quick quips they may toss off about why they do what they do. There are a few shooters per generation, however, who really add to the art by sharing the motivations that accompany the making of it. Joe McNally is one such photographer.
Joe, whose work ranges from National Geographic, Life, and Sports Illustrated to his groundbreaking Faces Of Ground Zero, speaks not as a pristine philosopher, but as the grizzled, hard-boiled, run-and-gun, reality-anchored pro that he is. He knows deadlines. He knows the cigar-chomping breath of hate-crazed editors. He know what moves, both emotionally and commercially. And he has written two of the era’s best books (The Moment It Clicks and Hotshoe Diaries) on the real struggles that arise for the professional in the field. No esoteric essays. Just straight-from-the-shoulder truths from the world. A few Joe-isms to treasure forever:
No matter how much crap you gotta plow through to stay alive as a photographer, no matter how many bad assignments, bad days, bad clients, snotty subjects, obnoxious handlers, wigged-out art directors, technical disasters, failures of the mind, body, and will, all the shouldas, couldas, and wouldas that befuddle our brains and creep into our dreams, always remember to make room to shoot what you love. It’s the only way to keep your heart beating as a photographer.
or: I can’t tell you how many pictures I’ve missed, ignored, trampled, or otherwise lost just ‘cause I’ve been so hell bent on getting the shot I think I want.
This is the voice of a guy who’s been stomped on, crowded out, smashed up and beaten silly in the cause of a picture. This is a go-to guy when you want to learn about how to make tough calls and hard choices. And it’s the indefatigable spirit of photography telling you that, however you go out, don’t come back in without the picture. That means to always be looking, and to always be ready, and willing to:
Put it to your eye. You never know. There are lots of reasons, some of them even good, to just leave it on your shoulder or in your bag. Wrong lens. Wrong light. Aaahhh, it’s not that great, what am I gonna do with it anyway? I’ll have to put my coffee down. I’ll just delete it later, why bother? Lots of reasons not to take the dive into the eyepiece and once again try to sort out the world into an effective rectangle. It’s almost always worth it to take a look.
And how does he shoot? Twice as good as he talks. Photographers need, always, to reject comfort, familiarity, habit, ease. Joe’s “Gee” eye reminds us to stay hungry.
And stay on the job.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS PHOTOGRAPHERS, WE HAVE A LIFETIME OF HEART-TO-HEART TALKS with ourselves, seeking the answer to questions like “what’s this I see?”, or “what do I want to tell?” Tricky thing is, of course, that, as time progresses, you are talking with a variety of conversational partners. As we age, we re-engineer nearly every choice-making process or system of priority. I loved Chef-By-Ar-Dee as an eight-year-old, but the sight of the old boy would probably make me gag at 63. And so it goes with clothing, choice of good reads, and, of course photography.
One of the things it’s prudent to do over the years is to take the temperature of present-day You, to really differentiate what that person wants in an image, versus what seemed essential at other stages in your life. I know that, in my case, my favorite photographers of fifty years ago bear very little resemblance to the ones I see as signposts today.
As a boy, I was in love with technical perfection and a very literal form of storytelling. Coming up in an artist’s household, I saw photos as illustrations, that is, subservient to some kind of text. I chose books for their pictures, yes, but for how well they visualized the writing in those books. The house was chock full of the mass-appeal photo newsmagazines of that day, from Life to Look to National Geographic to the Saturday Evening Post, periodicals that chose pictures for how well they completed the stories they decorated. A picture-maker for me, then, basically a writer’s assistant.
By my later school years, I began, slowly, to see photographs as statements unto themselves, something beyond language. They were no longer merely aids to understanding a writer’s position, but separate, complete entities, needing no intro, outro or context. The pictures didn’t have to be “about” anything, or if they were, it wasn’t a thing that was necessarily literal or narrative. Likewise, the kind of pictures I was interested in making seemed, increasingly, to be unanchored from reference points. Some people began to ask me, “why’d you make a picture of that?” or “why aren’t there any people in there?”
By this time in my life, I sometimes feel myself rebelling against having any kind of signature style at all, since I know that any such choice will eventually be shed like snake-skin in deference to some other thing I’ll deem important. For a while. What this all boils down to is that the journey has become more important than the destination, at least for my photography. What I learn is often more important than what I do about it.
And some days, I actually hope I never get where I’m going.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MY FIRST TRY AT ANTHOLOGIZING SOME OF MY PHOTOGRAPHS INTO A BOOK, done about half a dozen years ago, wound up looking like the jokey definition of a camel as “a horse built by committee”. That is to say, it was an exuberant mess, crammed with about ten times too many stylistic flourishes and, I can admit now, a complete lack of editorial judgement. Entitled Juxtapositions, it was an attempt to write a book about photography while also feeling I had nothing important to impart on the subject.
How’s that again?
Looking to spark thought about the eternal truths or universal experiences of making pictures, I passed on the idea of explaining or even captioning any of my own images, relying for text solely on quotations from the greats in the field, from Ansel Adams to DIane Arbus and back again. I was fascinated by how many of the same problems and experiences were common across the entire two centuries of photographic experience, and I hoped I had chosen shots that illustrated just how common those sensations really were, even in the work of an admitted amateur. I still like the idea of the book, but I’d like to find the gee-whiz geek who designed it (me) and slap him around for a while. It would make it easier to thumb through the wretched thing now.
There still may be a way to take the concept again and do it up properly, and at some time I may strap my Icarus wings back on to do it, this time flying a little farther away from the sun. In the meantime, however, I continue to collect the quotes themselves, and to compare the experience of picture-making as it’s seen and felt across various minds and times.
Errol Morris, the Oscar-winning director of the documentary Fog Of War, recently made a great addition to the literature on photography with his wonderful book Believing Is Seeing. It’s an intelligent examination of the visual biases we bring to the act of picture viewing, adding our own mental filters to what the photographer is trying to convey. However, the best quote in this very excellent work comes not from Morris himself, but from a somewhat obscure museum curator named Helmut Gernsheim, who has uttered, in just 59 words, precisely the sentiment that drives me to celebrate photography and to spend many, many more words trying to explain why.
Behold a jewel:
Neither camera, nor lens, nor film determine the quality of pictures; its is the visual perception of the man behind the mechanism which brings them to life. Art contains the allied ideas of making and begetting, of being master of one’s craft and able to create. Without these properties no art exists and photographic art can come into being. —Helmut Gernsheim, 1942, curator
There is a reason we are all here on these pages, a sweet madness that drives us forward from here to make something true. We don’t always bag our prize. But, somewhere deep inside ourselves, we really do understand what that prize is.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.
- Photography Quotes by Photographers (sarapoyfairphotography.com)