A SHADE-Y BUSINESS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY WAS NO SOONER OUT OF THE CRADLE than it was being aggressively tweaked and twiddled with, in a thousand myriad experiments aimed at improving it both technically and aesthetically. Seldom has the birth of an art form been accompanied by a surge of re-inventive energy equal to or greater than its release of creative energy. Photographs were both art and science, a strange hybrid of human expression and mechanical reproduction. One of the earliest and most consistent treasure hunts in the young craft was the quest for color, simulated and daubed on at first, then integrated into the actual making of the picture in-camera. In this age, which could be labeled Photography Century III, we use color mostly without thinking, even though it is one of the most crucial elements in how we tell stories in pictures.
Although the first practical color films date back to the early 1930’s, mostly by way of Kodachrome and its later imitators, the majority of important photographs for the first half of the twentieth century were taken and published in monochrome. In the minds of the pros like Ansel Adams, early printing processes for color were unsteady or “untrue”, with only mass-circulation magazines using them with any regularity (with a ton of touch-up) until well after World War II. After all the G.I. Joes and Janes came home, the tidal wave of leisure culture that accompanied them also brought a new explosion in amateur color photography, although it was not until the 1970’s that the economy of global film sales truly tipped in favor of the rainbow. Today, for many, monochrome is now a nostalgic effect, a quaint way of recalling the “look” of earlier photographic eras.
In 2021, our attitude about hue is all over the road. Some still obsessively pursue the most accurate depiction of “natural” colors as is technically possible, while, for many others, color is negotiable, malleable. We acknowledge its power as an expressive tool, but we tinker with it for interpretative purposes more than ever before. We even seek out software designed to re-produce the color errors or biases of bygone brands of film stock, seeking a color that is technically “wrong” in order to get the right “feel”. We shoot with color as we use any other modern means of expression, which is to say, with an overlay of irony.
In making an image like the one seen here, the very nature of the subject is a kind of unreality, since the desert blooms and bushes used in this art installation have been dyed before the work was assembled, in an array of colors that is nothing like the limited palette they would display in their natural state. The resulting work is thus a kind of psychedelic fever dream of a desert scene. Do I record this as I find it? Do I remix the colors even further to interweave my own mood into it? Just trying to render an accurate record of this object with the color films of long ago would have been enough to send the most battle-hardened photo editor into choleric fits, and yet today, we accept that color is, as with any other element in a photograph, precisely what we say it is, and nothing more. In a way, we’ve come full circle to photography’s earliest days, before the development of actual color film, when painters touched up black-and-white images with whatever arbitrary color choices they thought “completed” the picture. Is it art? Is it not? The answer is, it is ours, a response which silences all other questions.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE BY-PRODUCTS OF PROLONGED ISOLATION is the re-training of the artist’s eye, as more and more information is gleaned from fewer and fewer sources. The lifer convict thus knows more about masonry than the non-prisoner, simply because he is forced to stare at it longer. Or, to put it another way, as a person’s physical world contracts, as it has for many in the present era, things that are repeatedly re-seen can reveal more data than those that are quickly glimpsed. Notice that I am into my fourth sentence before uttering the dread word minimalism. And yet here we are.
I almost never deliberately seek out minimal compositions, at least not as part of some aesthetic religion; that is, I don’t set set out to make pictures that are, as I call them, “nearly naked”, stripped of all decoration or ornament. However, during the various stages of the creation of an image, I often decide that simpler is better, and re-set my course accordingly. And, as the worldwide Forced Hibernation has dragged on, I have found that a certain streamlining of many of my pictures is kicking in organically. Some of it occurs because I am forced to work with the same limited subject matter again and again, since traveling to a wider numbers of locations is presently off the menu. That can mean doing more than one “pass” on some pictures, and discovering. in that process, that I can, indeed, say more with less.
Those who already possessed sage wisdom or a certain Zen zeal might remark here that I should always have been on this journey, this growing sense of how to go about de-cluttering my vision. And to that, I would answer a resounding “maybe”. The image you see here is so simple a composition that I always would have approached it without the need for passing airplanes, utility poles, the surrounding parking lot, etc. However, where, before, I might have favored more detailed tableaux, I am finding, in a newly compelling way, that increasingly simpler pictures are calling to me these days. Likewise the rendering of excess detail or texture, which you’ll see is fairly absent from this picture. Does this mean I am growing as a person? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I am making pictures in a different creative environment for the moment, albeit with no guarantees that my technique will be fundamentally altered once I’m allowed out of the house more often (this site is three miles from my home). Still.
“There are two ways to be rich” children’s author Jackie French Koller wrote in 1948. “One is by acquiring much, and the other is by desiring little”. So, while I’m looking more intently at the masonry within my cell these days anyway, I might as well find out if that richer way of seeing will follow me once I’m sprung. In the words of another sage, Chuck Berry, “C’est la vie, say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell…”
TIDINGS OF COMFORT
By MICHAEL PERKINS (author of the new image collection FIAT LUX, available from NormalEye Press)
PHOTOGRAPHS ARE TRUSTEES OF MEMORY, AND, AS SUCH, can recall either clear testimony about the past as it actually appeared, or emotional echoes of how it felt. How you choose to depict something in the moment, whether real or abstract, will color the reliving of that event or thing in the future. In which case, will the photograph match your inner record of the experience? And is that experience sharp, as in a super-precise lens, or soft, as in the gauzy reverie of a dream?
Some photographs are made with a certain “emotional filter” in mind. Take the most personal, memory-driven events within our lives, such as the holidays. Can we really see clearly into the past as it exists in our mind? Does it seem softened or blurred by time? And if that’s how our memory renders things, is it accurate to depict such events, in the moment, in that hazy fashion?
I tend to interpret things that have a lot of sentimental heft in a way that resembles the look of memory to me…that is, softened, velvetized if you will. The hard edges and strong contrasts assigned to more reportorial photography seem too harsh when I’m cruising Christmas shop windows, and so my eye/mind/heart trusts a more diffuse approach. This is not revolutionary, of course, as many seasonal entertainments, from greeting cards to television favorites, are often rendered in a fairy-tale light and resolution. Can it become a cliche? Certainly. For me, however, such outward creations of holiday spirit comport perfectly with the movies that play inside my head, and so I really do dial back the “real” aspect on such occasions. The image seen here has plenty of definition, and so diminishing its sharpness can add to the picture even as something is “subtracted.”
This is part of the intention you set for photographs. I hate the word “capture”, because it implies that you merely froze what was in front of you without interpretation or comment, and what fun is that? Reality is often insufficient in the way it plays to our feelings, and art of any kind can sand away its rougher edges to create a custom feel for the heart. Some messages should be shouted, while others are more hearable in a whisper. Photographs only begin with the mere recording of light, but, if we’re lucky, they end with something truly personal.
THE MERENESS OF REALITY
By MICHAEL PERKINS (author of the new image collection “FIAT LUX”, available through NormalEye Press)
LIKE PHOTOGRAPHS THEMSELVES, THE REMARKS INTENDED AS COMPLIMENTS for photographs are often crippled by cliche, as we struggle to appreciate not only what an image looks like but what we believe it ought to look like. “It’s so realistic” and “looks just like a postcard” are two of my favorites, along with “nice color” or “you must have a really good camera”, but one of our well-worn go-to’s is, to me, head and shoulders above the rest: “the picture looks better than the real place/person/thing”. In that one sentence is the entire tug-of-war our minds wage between the province of the photographer and that of the painter.
In a painting, we know that fallible/biased human hands are not rendering “reality”, but a subjective amplification of it. Who knows if the trees were really that green, or the mountain that drenched in sun, and who cares? We stipulate that we are looking at an interpretation. There is no accusation of manipulation or fakery, since the painter’s perspective is baked into the process of painting. He doesn’t have to add, “at least that’s how I see it” because we all accept those terms of engagement.
The camera, however, is quite another thing.
Despite over nearly two hundred-plus years that demonstrate how very subjective photography is, we have a hard-wired reflex to see the camera as the agent of creativity, the soulless, unerring recording instrument which is the arbiter of all that is “real”. When the personal input of the photographer, like that of the painter, is introduced, we adopt different words to judge the results, many of them unflattering. We label the picture a “trick”, a “fake”, “manipulated” and, the latest insult in the critical lexicon, “post-processed”, as if any attempt at personalizing or idealizing a view of the world is untrustworthy, non-genuine. To say a picture looks “better than the real thing” is to somehow suggest that it is something less than the real thing, not more. Certainly, some painters have been tarred with the same brush, but not to the extent that photographers typically are. In fact, photographs are, as Picasso said of art in general, “a lie that makes us realize truth”. We create images that escape the mereness of reality on the road to something more essential about the condition of being human.
My grandfather’s old chess set, pictured here, is, in reality, pretty wrecked, bearing the scars of hundreds of skirmishes with many vanquished foes. Now, I could make a photograph that depicts all that detail, and it might be engaging, even touching as a comment on the fragility of objects. But in this frame, I’m approaching the white and black armies as real combatants, using selective focus to re-visualize them as mythic stand-ins for the legions who face off in actual battles over the broad span of history. The same focus scheme is designed to render everything else around them as fuzzy, immaterial. The fight, not little pieces of wood, is the so-called”reality”, and everything around it melts into obscurity. This is a picture planned like a painting is, a deliberate as-I-see-it denial of actuality in search of a different reality….my own. Like painters, photographers are looking for a verity that is occasionally “better” or “worse” than the real thing. Because if all you want of a camera is for it slavishly to perform a recording function, like a seismograph or a thermometer, then all photographers are obsolete and need to take up a different hobby.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS FAIRLY SOLID CONSENSUS, among those who teach the basics of photographic composition, that the path to success lies in reducing a picture to its simplest terms. Removal of extraneous distraction, proper placement of a subject within a frame, depth-of-field calculations…all these techniques work toward a common goal; to help the eye engage the photo efficiently, to lock onto its essential story without being confused or deflected toward something less important. Often a cleaner composition is just a matter of cropping, or merely limiting the number of elements contending for the viewer’s attention.
But there is one approach to basic composition that may not be instinctive to us all, and that’s the role that color plays in our pictures.
Color is the current instinctive default for most of our photos. It took a long time for it to be technically capable of taking that mantle from monochrome, which was, by necessity, the palette that shooters painted on for over a century. Color is seductive, and seems like a more “realistic” medium for our very personal universes of family and friends. However, in the composition of any picture, it must be reckoned with as another object in the frame, no less than a tree or a cloud. It is one more thing in there that demands our notice, and, for many images, it certainly earns that attention. However, color can become the message of a picture, not just the way the picture is rendered, drawing off the viewer’s eye in exactly the same way as extra props, extraneous scenery or other clutter can.
Some would argue that black and white is more nuanced and subtle in the rendering of emotional directness, or texture, or contrast when compared to color, and yet some of us think of monochrome as somehow incomplete or unfinished. Try telling that to several dozen Pulitzer winners, some of whom, admittedly, worked before color was practical (and therefore not a real option), along with others who continued to choose b&w even after it became the minority medium. And this is not about unilaterally choosing sides, forever pitting the Kodak Tr-X crowd in a pitched battle against the Fuji Velvia cadre. It’s only about choosing the right tool for every picture, and not getting so locked into the global color default that you refuse to peer into the opposite camp. I continue to master every shot in color to this day, but a full fifth of my final output consists of mono conversions, with modern post-processing giving me every bit as much control over the results as in the old darkroom days (as seen in the illustrations). The best course, I believe, is to form the habit of looking at all your pictures both ways. Often, you will just stick with the color original, because it works. And other times you will play in the other playground because, for some pictures, that works.
Color is an object within your pictures, no less than a mountain or a chair. Think of it as another piece of visual furniture fighting for dominance in the frame, and deal with it accordingly. Monochrome is not photography’s simpler, poorer step-kid. Sometimes, it can be the pride of the family.
TO-DO’s AND TO-DONT’S
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE EASIEST THINGS TO LEARN ABOUT IN PHOTOGRAPHY, apparently, is what you’re doing wrong, or so a casual stroll through the Googleweb would suggest. The internet is lots of things, but starved for opinions it ain’t, and so one of the fattest search yields you’ll find online consists of lists, endless in number, on how we are falling short as shooters. You may have sought them out yourself: “Ten most common mistakes”, “the beginner errors everyone makes” “twenty things not to do with your pictures” and so on into the night, rosters of failure and shame compiled by everyone from prominent pros to the village idiot. Actually, that’s unfair. Likely the village idiot is having too much fun taking photos to worry a lot about whether he’s doing it right. As a lifelong village idiot, I can attest that it takes one to know one.
Many of the sins, both venial and mortal, that make up these “to-don’t” lists are of a purely technical nature, such as picking the right aperture or making sure that you haven’t posed a subject in such a way as to make it appear that a hibiscus is sprouting out of the top of his head. Surprisingly, there are fewer suggestions about composure…what makes it stark or busy, what makes it fail to engage or confusing to “read”…than you’d suppose. Almost none of these lists actually address ideas or motivation. And so I mainly regard all such lists with a bit of an arched eyebrow, for the simple reason that they are so very practical. Practical and art are not often on speaking terms.
Orson Welles, a directorial virgin when he arrived in Hollywood to make Citizen Kane, was told by his cinematographer Gregg Toland that there was nothing about shooting a picture that couldn’t be taught in a weekend. Welles’ verdict: Toland was right. Still photography is similar: the mechanics of merely getting a picture into the box are not like the procedures for splitting the atom: much of the moves we make to make an image are but variations on the moves we’e always made, and even without formal instruction, digital has made the learning curve so short that you can muster (if not master) the basics in a few days. It’s what to do with all those technical tips that separates the men/women from the boys/girls, and the endless online (or printed) to-don’t lists don’t even address that amidst all their edicts on lighting and lenses. Because they can’t. Because it can’t be taught like the steps of changing your oil can be taught. It can be learned, but only from yourself. Certainly, if you can’t see, you can still shoot. It just won’t matter that you did, that’s all.
The reason arbitrary rules don’t work with art is because art works best when rules are broken. If all we had to do with a camera was faithfully record light and dark, we would eventually, with practice, all have the same level of excellence. But we don’t. And we can’t. Sometimes a picture just works, despite some line judge saying that it’s too dark, too blurry, or too busy. And if a picture does not transmit your passion to someone else, then all the technical excellence in the world can’t make it connect any better. Why don’t all the do-and-don’t lists talk about motivation, or intention, or just the habit of shooting mindfully? Because that is a matter of mystery beyond measurement. A picture is built, not taken. It happens within the eye and mind of the shooter, and sometimes leapfrogs over all the correct techniques to arrive at a result that is too personal to be contained in a rule book.
THERE WENT ME
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE A BIT LIKE AUTHORS OF WRITTEN MEMOIRS, in that they have to constantly worry about their trustworthiness as narrators. Armed with a machine that can shape perceptions and even influence history, can we be relied upon to tell the truth (if anyone can agree on what the truth is)? One of the key “tells” of a photographer’s veracity should be his or her ability to showcase themselves in a portrait. But that, in terms of honesty, is actually where most of the mischief occurs.
This seems counterintuitive. How can we not be the ultimate authority on how we look, or how we should be visually captured? Some of it may be how the portrait, and the selfie in turn, has evolved over the centuries. When photography was new, having your portrait “made” was an attempt to make a document of yourself. To record the official version of you. Opportunities to do so were expensive and sparse. Once photography became a mass-appeal hobby, the snapshot made portraits less formal, and, in turn, less important. People went, within a generation, from having one or two pictures made of their faces to having hundreds snapped. In recent years, even more drastic changes in ease and convenience have squared and cubed that number, as we pose for more images of ourselves than we can even put a number to. And, along the line, we have become better and better at hiding more of what we consider the boring or bad parts from the omnipresent camera.
I have been trying for weeks to think about what The Quarantine has collectively done to the human face, and how that can be documented. Some visual impacts, like strap marks on the faces of surgeons or grief carved onto the features of the bereaved, are readily apparent. But how to measure photographically what the crisis has done to our insides? What of those costs are even readable on our faces? Suddenly, a very special opportunity, or obligation, is re-connected to the selfie. Now, in the interest of truth-telling, we must un-learn the clever tricks that allow us to regularly look in the camera and lie, creating false images that say I’m doing fine. My life is great. I don’t need any help…
What you see here is an experiment. It’s not really “posed” in the standard sense, as I shot it as part of a rapid series that allowed me only minimal time to prepare, or, if you will, overthink what my expression “should be”. This is thus a piece of me, in the context of these days, but it’s not the entire story. It’s, if you will, less of a lie, but also less of the complete truth about whoever I am these days. I’m not completely untrustworthy as a narrator, but whole big parts of me are still fighting the process of baring it all. Maybe I can’t get there. Maybe none of us can. But photographers are charged with looking for answers, even if they fail in completely nailing them down.
BEFORE WE GO ANY FURTHER….
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I’M A FEW WEEKS LATE in observing what has become a nearly annual habit in the pages of The Normal Eye since its launch some nine years ago. Like all of us (and certainly most photographers), I get swept up in what I think is important in the moment, and I can, at times, forget my manners. I’ve slung a lot of words in your direction over the better part of a decade, but only two of them really matter.
Thanks for subscribing. For reading. For sticking around. For caring enough to take issue with ideas, and to occasionally add your support for them. Thanks for helping me remember that, although technical knowledge is always a key part of photography, the real things that animate it as an art are motivations. Dreams. Attempts to make a visual record of our desires and dreads. To say that photography is about a certain camera or lens or setting is to say that painting is about the brushes, and we have always tried to keep our main mission in focus: to share, yes, what tools can help us, but, most importantly, what it feels like to face creative decisions and do your best to realize those decisions in a remarkably flexible medium, possibly the greatest storytelling vehicle man has ever known.
These pages pose plenty of questions, but I have tried not to insist that my personal answers to those questions are recommendations for all. I’m not Dear Abby. I have no set solutions to challenges that register differently with every eye and every camera. At most, what I write here is in the way of a field diary: I was presented with this and I decided to try….that. What you read here is an active, developing story of what I encounter and learn on my journey. You may find some common notes between my melody and yours, and you just as easily might dismiss that melody as noise. And that’s just fine.
While rummaging through a lot of old files in recent days (we all have extra time on our hands these days) I’m struck with how many images I’ve made of the insides of museums. Not to document the specific exhibitions of any particular place, but to show the feeling that I get inside such spaces. The potential for amazement. The fact that, any second now, something transformative could swing out of the darkness into clear view..challenging me to see differently. In that way, all of life serves as a museum, a collection of artifacts that can appear, depending on our perception, either as elegant clutter or inspiration. I know what choice I’ve made, and it’s the same choice made by all of you, every time you seek other sources of joy, other teachers, other talents. Thanks for making The Normal Eye one of the stops on your journey, and thanks for the energy you have invested in helping me make it better.
THE DEAR (RECENTLY) DEPARTED
By MICHAEL PERKINS
REFLECTION TAKES A KIND OF MENTAL TALENT. Others would say that it takes humility. Or wisdom.
But mostly, it takes time.
Looking back is not a speedy process. First, it helps for us to personally advance to the point where certain things are in the past, since the distancing of ourselves from the immediacy of events invites and facilitates our thoughtful analysis of them. Perspective requires distance, a way to separate ourselves from the blindness of our immediate environment. The questions then become obvious: what did all that stuff mean? Which parts of it can I learn from? Does it all deserve to go away?
The process of reflection in photography also waits, if you will, for enough time to pass, allowing the artist to re-evaluate things, to take a second crack at trying to understand them. Once an experience floats far enough away from us, we are free to either appreciate it anew or merely release it as less than essential. The dear departed, once we get far enough away from them, become open to interpretation by many means, the camera among them. Everyday objects can tend to be invisible, because we mainly see only their use. With time, we can often re-visit them, seeing new elements in their design, the context of why they were important in the first place, or other considerations.
Think Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup can.
By forcing a conversation about a seemingly banal object, forcing it into “serious” art galleries as an important thing, Warhol made us look at why we consume things, as well as what we would, going forward, consider “art”. Lately, in the age of the Great Hibernation, many photographers are picking through the accumulated stuff of their immediate environment, looking for something from which to craft images. In so doing, we’ll inevitably stumble across things we have forgotten, or simply don’t consider anymore on an everyday basis. Some of these objects have only recently drifted out of the flood of impressions that make up our daily world, like the cassette seen here. How could anything have been more ubiquitous at the height of its popularity? What could be anymore superfluous than it is now? And yet…
Using the camera and our increasing distance from familiar things can free those things from their popular associations. They can become our soup can, sparking some interesting questions. Why did we use this thing? Why did it not last? And now that it is, truly, just a thing, what can we learn about ourselves by looking at it from a new direction? This is not as ridiculous a rainy-day project as it seems. We still visit places whose famous sites are so over-photographed that we have to labor to say anything new about them, to, in effect, make the Eiffel tower our Eiffel tower. The whole idea of re-visualizing dear, recently departed is really part of the same exercise, done one cassette at a time.
THE GUESSING GAME
By MICHAEL PERKINS
STREET PHOTOGRAPHY IS, AT BEST, a frustratingly imprecise method of, well, eavesdropping. In such unplanned documentary images, the photographer is cast as a kind of sneak-thief, bent upon prying into the unguarded moments of an unsuspecting quarry. But unlike the practice of listening at the keyhole, of course, unposed pix provide no sound, no dialogue to accompany the streetie’s stolen views, and so the resulting pictures often conceal as much as they reveal about What Is Going On Here. We see, but we don’t discern. At least, not solely on what is shown.
Of course, that is the delicious element of the process of street. We supply the missing pieces of the puzzle, assigning our own “meaning” to what we think we have seen. Line up a handful of viewers to interpret a photographed interaction between people and note the incredible variety of “answers” or “solutions” to the image. Part of the allure of photography is that we think as much about what a photo doesn’t show as what it does. In some ways, it’s like the relationship moviegoers had with silent film. Certainly the title cards provided the essential story points or pivotal bits of dialogue, but we also had our minds to conjure what those longing glances, those missing voices, those unseen details were really all about. And so, even in an art form in which we prize the miracle of preserving moments unmoored from time, we agree, along with our audiences, that these moments are incomplete, that, in fact, the finishing of them, in our eyes, is part of the wonder, part of the art.
And so perhaps the best street photographs are special not so much for what they show, but for how successfully they spark that urge within us to know more. Our speculations and guesses, are, in the absence of important information, as valid or “true” as anyone else’s take on the thing. That again demonstrates that photography is a creative process for both taker and viewer. It’s a cooperative enterprise, a divine guessing game with no final resolution: a circle.
FRESH OUT OF THE OVEN
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PUBLIC STRUCTURES CAN BECOME THE MOST OVER-PHOTOGRAPHED objects on the planet, especially if they strike people as personally symbolic. As visual icons of status, history, empire, and other human yearnings, our buildings and gathering places can flood the world market with images, as everyone does their “take” on things that have already been explored beyond human imagination. Eventually, saying something new about these places can be a challenge, since all the obvious renditions of it have themselves become iconic. That is to say, the predominant way most people have photographed a thing becomes, itself, the “official” way of looking at it.
This problem exists less with new or emerging destinations, places that are not as yet pre-imagined into “correct” photographic interpretations. Such sites are, if you will, fresh out of the oven. Be one of the first hundred million or so to “discover” a special place, and you may just have a chance of looking at it in an original way, before the prevailing version becomes carved in stone. Take two iconic sectors of Manhattan as an example. One has to really, really strain to make a new image of the Empire State Building, and so many of us just shoot our copy of the expected view. Head down to Ground Zero, however, and it seems much easier to do a lot more, imagination-wise, with something like the Oculus, the space-erific replacement for the PATH terminal that was destroyed on 9/11. Its contours still surprise. Its overall design intention is still a matter of personal conjecture. It has not yet become either universally beloved or universally despised.
Art thrives in areas where, conceptually, we haven’t truly made up our minds…where the jury’s still out. Photographing something in an influential vacuum….that is, uninfluenced by all the others who have discovered the subject before you…is difficult. Both the glorious and the notorious attract shooters like a summer porch light does moths, and soon, what I call the “postcard average” version of a thing emerges, and is cemented into place. At that point the photographer who wants to mine something new out of the subject has to be prepared to dig deep, to undercut expectations. But when we measure the impact of a thing with our own eyes, rather than just recording our agreement with the popular view, then the mob stops being in charge inside our heads. Then we can actually see.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY’S FIRST HALF-CENTURY OR SO can be seen as a road race with the world of painting, with both runners trying to outpace each other in “realistically” depicting the world. The camera, being an actual recording machine, was first reviled, later praised as a more reliable chronicler of the actual world. Painters, in reaction, quit the reality playing field, inventing new, more abstract forms of expression like Impressionism, and left the documentary work to photogs. Or so everyone assumed.
After 1900, photographers, too embraced the idea that mere “reality” was overrated and developed their own very individualistic ways of making images, introducing the first manipulations of film, light, lenses, printing techniques and composition. Freed from the stricture of merely capturing a scene, shooters began to propose alternative visions, to interpret the world in very subjective ways. Today, one’s photographs can be as tightly naturalistic or as loosely abstract as one pleases, with some of the most impactful pictures being the ones that seem to be about nothing in particular. These “absolute” compositions, basic arrangements of color and light, may not be storytelling images in the same way that a war photo or a news snap are. They not only don’t provide explanations, they don’t even require them. The terms of engagement for such photographs are stark and simple: they’re pictures because we say they’re pictures, and they either grab you or they don’t.
My own training in photography manifested itself as a need to exercise control, to execute well and follow the rules of technique faithfully. However, my idea of getting a picture “right”, which might easily have stopped at just technical precision, has, thankfully, continued to crawl forward toward the kinds of absolutes I described before. Pictures that just are, such as the one shown here, pose a problem for me, since I have to leave the safety of things I know that “work”, entering a realm where I’m not sure where the paths are. I truly love what happens when I relax my grip on the old reliable truths and let things just happen, but it’s also a bit like walking in space: my tether could break, and I could be cast adrift.
The first time I heard someone, in speaking of one of my photographs, ask, “what’s that supposed to be?” I was stung, nervous. The question is, of course, ridiculous, as if there were only one way to represent the world, with every other way somehow counted as wrong. But the camera is not (and never was), a mere measuring and recording instrument. Over the centuries, it has been whatever we have asked of it, a seismograph of our own undulating curiosity. We learn to see by learning its operations. We learn to listen by shutting out every other sound except our own clear voice.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.” – Anais Nin
IF YOU WANT TO LEARN EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT A PERSON, observe them in a relationship.
Alone, each of us is a sealed chamber of secrets. Matched with just one other living thing, however, an individual’s inner truths begin to seep out, to display themselves like buds slowly blossoming into blooms. Photographers concentrate mightily on solo portraits, and that is certainly a treasure trove of its own, but the visual grammar of a portrait is completely different than that of a group shot, and provides completely distinct information. The self has its native language, but when we are placed in a situation with others, be it a simple social chat or a key interaction, we are translated into a different tongue altogether.
We experience joy, regret, conflict, triumph as individuals, and a photograph can certainly read pieces of all of that (or at least imply it), but once we are in twosomes, threesomes, and so forth, all those emotional states are measured differently. The signals become amplified, more easily detected. Of course, people in conversations can be presenting completely false versions of themselves (spoiler alert) , but, in an image, the mask can be seen to slip, if only a little, revealing at least a smidgeon of the real person beneath the guise.
Admittedly, a photograph is not an x-ray, and so anything it records is open to interpretation, including our guess about the actual mindset of the subject. Translation: the camera can easily lie, or transmit a falsehood. Once that untruth is out in the open, however, the viewer is the jury that determines whether what’s on display is fact or fiction. My point is that palpably different things are in view in pictures of social interaction than in images of isolated individuals, and so all shooters should be conversant in mining both areas. The fact that the faces of the two women in the top picture are concealed is no more an inhibitor to our discovery than the plainer display of expressions of the duo on the subway. Our minds will devise their own ways of decoding these interactions. The fact remains that a whole extra level of view into the human mind/spirit can be achieved in watching people interact. For me, it’s the difference between shooting through a window to catch a glimpse of a house’s interior and being invited inside the place for a better look.
But that, as they say on the shrink’s couch, is just me.
A NEW BEEHIVE IN AN OLD APPLE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT HAS BEEN CALLED “THE EIFFEL TOWER OF AMERICA”, a “stairway to nowhere”, a “bold addition to the city’s landscape” and “an eyesore”,…….in other words, a new structure in New York City. Whatever its eventual place in the hearts of Manhattanites, architect Thomas Heatherwick’s Vessel, a hollow, honeycombed tower of open staircases, viewing landings and dizzying geometry, all sixteen stories of it, has become the visual exclamation point for the continuing explosion of shops and businesses known as Hudson Yards, a project so huge it may not max out for another decade. At this writing, it’s late 2019, and the tower’s creators, who claim the name “vessel” is just a transitional one, have already weathered a short tsunami of plaudits and protests since the beehive’s opening earlier in the spring. And in a city defined by bold visual signatures, the structure seems destined to become a darling for photographers, especially at its current newborn phase, in which there is, as yet, no “official” way of viewing it, no established postcard depiction to inhibit or limit individual visions. It’s at this first phase in a landmark’s life that all captures are equal: it’s the photographic equivalent of the Wild West.
Vessel sits near the periphery of the High Line, the internationally praised West Side reclamation of the New York Central Railway’s old raised infrastructure, which now welcomes millions of strolling visitors and locals each year along its 1.45 miles of twisty, landscaped boardwalks, and has acted as the launch pad for recovery of the entire area, including Hudson Yards’ forest of skyscrapers and high-end shops. The first phase of the Yards is crowned by a glistening five-story mall whose massive glass facing wall is directly opposite Vessel. On the day when I visited, the free timed daily tickets to the inside of the honeycomb were all gone, so viewing it in the regular fashion was off the table. However, every floor of the mall has a spectacular view of the structure and its surrounding plaza, which actually appealed to me almost as much as a trip inside. The combination of reflection, refraction, and the golden glow of the approaching sunset made for a slightly kaleidoscopic effect, and so I decided to re-configure my plans. As mentioned before, the utter newness of the tower plays superbly well into photographic experimentation, as its design seems to present a completely different experience to the viewer every few feet, a very democratic sensation that rewards every visitor in a distinctly personal way. Besides, part of the fun of seeing new things in New York is weighing the hoorays and howls against each other and then making up your own mind.
In a city that has seen both P.T. Barnum’s dime museum and Penn Station fade from the scene over the centuries, it’s useless to guess whether Vessel is eventually regarded as a must-see or a fizzle. But it doesn’t matter much either way. Right now, it is neither building nor dwelling. Like Eiffel, it just is, and maybe that’ll be enough. In the meantime, photographers are using the opportunity of its present existence to celebrate the uncertainty that informs the making of the best pictures.
DESIGNS OF DESTINY
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PATTERNS ARE KIND OF A PHOTOGRAPHIC ABSOLUTE, in that they require no context for comprehension in an image. We needn’t explain such arrangements of negative and positive space, such as the latticework of a single snowflake: their mere existence is story enough. We find endless fascination in the spirals within the heart of a flower, the alternating light and shadow inside a stairwell. Of course, we can certainly take the time to remark further about them, but the best photographs of patterns go way beyond our ability to justify them with mere words. In a visual medium, they are their own best testimony.
Other patterns resist interpretation for the reason that they are clearly of another time, so far removed from our own present-day experience as to be meaningless to us beyond their shape and contours. We can view mosaics from a vanished culture, but are prevented from deciphering their symbols: we find a flute from centuries past but can’t read the notated music that was intended to be played on it. In more recent terms, the technology that remade the planet during the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century has left behind a rusting legacy of devices which speak very little as to their original functions. Masses of gears, wheels and belts which once were the stuff of everyday existence now need captions to even be comprehended by our eyes. Thus, as visual subjects, their patterns are so obsolete as to be abstract, presenting merely a mixture of textures and tones to our contemporary cameras.
The world is moving so quickly that even the wildly speculative “future” gizmos seen at the World’s Fairs of the 1960’s already need auxiliary context to be fully appreciated. In one respect, as purely visual artists, we are actually freed by this phenomenon. When a thing becomes unanchored from its original purpose, the photographer can assign any purpose to it that he pleases. The object is nothing, and so, paradoxically, it can be everything. Consider the mass of machinery in the above shot. Were I not to tell you its original use, would you recognize it as part of the machinery to be found in a flour milling facility from the 1800’s? Does knowing or not knowing that fact detract from its impact as an image? Are you all right with patterns that are truly absolute, scenes that are merely themselves, and nothing more?
You are always in charge of what you want your pictures to say. You can record events and people at face value, or you can imbue them with additional meaning. Or no meaning whatsoever. The camera is thus just a servo-mechanism. It’s not in charge of saying what the world is. That power, that responsibility, has always been yours and yours alone.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE FIRST MASTERS OF PHOTOGRAPHY STRUGGLED with processes and tools that seemed to stack the deck against the chances that anyone would ever, ever create even a single photograph. Those first exposures, made with slow media and balky, uncertain lenses were not only works of art, but they were truly just plain, flat out work. I recently viewed a video demonstrating the bygone method known as photogravure, the means by which any “serious” photographic artist would render his work for critical approval in the late 19th-century. I was so utterly crushed by the sheer unforgiving precision needed to complete the process that I dropped to my needs and thanked the photo gods for giving me the luxury to merely….shoot. I felt at once lazy and liberated.
One thing these old exposure and processing systems did, however, is fix their visual aspects in time, so that, in our mental sorting process, we easily differentiate between the look of an 1850 wet-plate image and a 1950 Polaroid Land camera snapshot. Various periods in the methodological development of the art have their own distinct signatures. The strange thing is how, in the present era, we use apps and editing suites to summon those old ghost looks back into the present, mixing periods together like a cook throwing all his available ingredients into a garbage salad. We no longer give any thought to making something look old, or retro-old, or ironically old-ish. All times periods can exist in the same image, and whether they have any natural relation to each other is a moot point, if a point at all. We just do it because we can just do it.
In the above picture, for example, I’m merely playing, without any real object in mind. The master photograph on which this remix is based was taken two months ago (Summer 2019) at the main greenhouse building at Minneapolis’ Como Park. The structure’s classic design, complete with rounded cupolas and gently curving rooflines, reminded me of the immense halls that were erected in the 1800’s to house international expositions, industrial shows and world’s fairs, and so I took a fairly straightforward shot from a cell phone and cranked it through an app to evoke an echo of that time, a visual masquerade that mimics the tintype process, right down to its selective pinpoint focus and plate grain. Admittedly, the illusion is spoiled a bit, since the people in the picture are wearing shorts and t-shirts rather than bustles and straw boaters, but that’s not the point. I wasn’t trying, like some master art forger, to make you think this was a newly discovered artifact of the Victorian age. And while I might have been trying to comment on “how we used to think of the purpose of grand public spaces”, or how that contrasts with the public spaces we value now…..I wasn’t. I was just goofing off, using quick and amazing tools the way a child might take Mr. Potato Head’s nose and put it where his ear should be.
What is singular, however, is knowing that any part of photography can be harnessed or combined with every other part of photography at any time. That’s not a hot bulletin, but it is worth pointing out from time to time that, after centuries of innovation, our art is now, like Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, truly unstuck in time. Backwards, forwards, or right in the middle, what we shoot and where we stand are completely under our control.
ONCE UPON A …….
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.
THE DREYFUS REFLEX
By MICHAEL PERKINS
This is important. This means something….
Roy Neary, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind
I HAVE NEVER TRIED TO SCULPT THE MASHED POTATOES FROM OUR NIGHTLY DINNER into a replica of Devil’s Tower, but, as a photographer, I have experienced plenty of Roy Neary “a-ha” moments, marveling as a seemingly bland tableau pops into something very, very different in my mind’s eye. It’s the transformational moment that, when it occurs, justifies all of the sit-and-wait and close-but-no-cigar moments associated with making pictures. It is so invigorating that it re-enlists the weariest of us for yet one more tour of duty. Even the chance for experiencing a Roy Neary moment, what I call the Dreyfus Reflex, will shore up our courage and refresh our dedication. Hey, magic happened that one other time, we say. It might happen again.
But learning to see creatively is not merely a matter of being willing to receive a visual message from the great beyond. Seeing is an exercise, no less than a push-up or a jumping jack. It’s a matter of perfecting yourself as a receptacle, as a kind of pipe through which ideas can flow freely. The pipe has to be constantly widened and re-opened, and the exercise of learning to see ensures that, once an idea is at the entry point to the pipe, its path is unobstructed. Thus, the photographic concept is not coming from you so much as it is flowing through you. Learning to see photographically means, then, being “open” to a perception that, without practice, might never become apparent, but which, having become so, urges a photograph.
It means, in a sense, getting out of your own way.
Going back to our Close Encounters metaphor, Roy doesn’t start out thinking his dinner spuds resemble a mountain top. He gradually learns to accommodate ideas that are so un-obvious to everyone else that he seems crazy. Effectively, Roy has become an artist, in that he can look at one thing and see something beyond its mere surface appearance. In that moment, he is every poet, every novelist, every painter, and, yes, every photographer who ever lived. Similarly, any subject matter, such as the stalk of wheat seen here, can take on endless new identities, once we’ve become comfortable with it being more than one thing, or one version of a thing.
I once had a friend tell me that his favorite compliment as a photographer occurred when he was comparing pictures that he and a friend had taken from the very same trip, passing by identical sites and locations. “Where did you see that??” his companion remarked, indicating that while the two men’s sets of eyes were physically pointed in many of the same directions. they had come away with vastly different impressions. Does this process make one set of pictures “better” than another? Certainly not. But it does illustrate that there is more than one level of seeing, so that, even if my friend were to visit all those places alone, on different days, very different things would emerge in the pictures from varying shoots. What accounts for this variance? The light and the subject could be made to match: the gear and its settings could be replicated: even the precise time of day could be re-created, and yet the pictures of the same things by the same person would probably contrast noticeably with each other. And knowing all of that, when you set out as a photographer, means you’re aware of, and eager to exploit, the Dreyfus Reflex. What you see is just the first step of the journey: how you see it determines where the journey will eventually lead.
AN OPEN SECRET
Nothing is revealed.—-Bob Dylan
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE YOUNG MAN IN THE PHOTOGRAPH IS A DANDY. A FOP. A DUDE. A slave to fashion. A symbol of the impossibly proper British spirit. A remnant of the Edwardian age, teetering on the dawn of the Roaring Twenties, a decade that will later seem uniquely American. But he is not an American. Not yet.
But he has dreams.
It is around 1920.
And he is my grandfather.
The photograph is formal, a studio portrait with someone else’s furniture and carpet suppled as homey props. His gaze is intense…too serious for a young man, some might think. And yet, of course, he will need all the determination that gaze implies to book passage, very soon, on the ship Mauritania (the Lusitania’s sister ship) and enter New York City through the thresher of Ellis Island, taking a train into the great midwest, to Lorraine, Ohio, where an uncle has vouched for his industry and loyalty. He will stay in his new country for the rest of his natural life.
The picture has come to me unexpectedly, just as you see it here, from a lost trove of family lore that my sister has kept for years, finally deciding that, with my archivist’s inclinations, I “might want to do something with it.” I have never seen this image over the course of my 67 years. And, yet, seeing it, I am struck by the strange double impact of photographs, these windows into “was” that reveal and conceal equally. It is, certainly, a treat to see my grandfather as this determined young man, to place him in the context of everything else that his life would hold afterwards. But the image is also absent nearly any context of its own. The back shows it to have been printed by a British postcard company, but the message portion of the card is gone, leaving several mysteries. Who was the intended recipient? If family, was the card to serve as a forever reminder of the boy who was just about to cross the Atlantic, never to return? And, if friend, what story is left untold between he and whoever? The card is inscribed with the word “effectionately” and his full name, not merely “Leonard”. Why the formality? Is it a clue to the relationship, or just the starchy propriety which we would later know to be his hallmark?
And then there is the outfit. “Fancy” is the word that comes to mind, with its formal bowler and short leather gloves. But therein lies a case of coloring the past with the sense of the present: in the age of torn cutoffs, flip-flops and selfies, we have lost all sense of what it was, around 1920, to “have one’s portrait made”. Certainly it was a rarer thing, an occasion. Even at the dawn of the Kodak-inspired age of candid photography, many millions of people around the world were still going to their mortal reward with their faces recorded but a few scant times by a camera, and many not at all. And now, to see this picture rise out of the mist, to show Grandfather as a real person with no connection (by that time) to anyone or anything else I have inherited as family legend, is to be teased by the fact that photographic interpretation does not cease with the shooter’s intention, of the way he chooses to show a thing. It continues infinitely through the eyes of other interpreters, who take the photographer’s “reality” and subject it to a scrutiny all their own. Revelation. Concealment. Discovery. Mystery.
He seems to be trying to appear older, just, as later, he would use clothing (always the top-drawer stuff) to appear military, dignified, taller, and, always, serious. I realize now that I never saw a truly candid photo of him, regardless of the occasion or setting. Every photo was a performance, a record, a testament. Leonard George Tate Perkins is a force to be reckoned with. I am nobody’s fool. Respect must be paid.
I am now paying that respect in a new way, forty years past his death, by looking into the face of that stern young dandy, and into the open secret that all photographs hold.
Think you see the truth?
Not so fast.
I /WE REMEMBER IT WELL
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.
November 28, 2018 | Categories: America, Cities, Framing, Interpretation | Tags: Commentary, history of photography | Leave a comment