the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Landscapes

TERRAIN WITHOUT MAPS

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ANY PHOTOGRAPHER WORTH THE NAME is supposed to embrace landscapes, right? I mean, scenes of sea coasts and mountain ranges were among the first “official” subject categories photography inherited from the world of painting. The earliest pictures created with a “machine” pretended to legitimacy by capturing the same tableaux as those captured with a brush. I get that. But, as I have confessed many times in these pages, I often feel cast adrift in approaching “scenery” shots. I have more difficulty in shaping their narrative, whereas walking around a city, I feel like stories are literally laying all over the ground. I may have a general sense of what a landscape should look like, whereas I don’t always know what they are about. I have plenty of terrain, but no maps.

Think in terms of whatever kind of photograph you yourself feel most challenged. Do you shy away from your shorter suit because the task is too technically daunting, or because you feel unsure of what to say? It seems that landscapes often come to me without any clearly stated rules of engagement. What is a good composition? How crowded, how “busy” with visual elements can it be? Is the answer simply to render more detail than the next guy, that is, set for f/64 and show everything in tack sharpness, as if recording a scene “faithfully” were all? Or, as in the shot shown here (which I actually like), can a picture be dreamily soft and tremendously crowded with stuff, and still “work”?

The really maddening thing is that I just don’t have these inner dialogues when I’m shooting street scenes, abstracts, portraits. I don’t worry about whether a thing should be done, I just do it. Moreover, I trust myself to do it without a lot of dithering. But landscapes make me stop and worry. Maybe that pausing will lead to more deliberate thinking, and, in turn, to better pictures. The jury’s still out.


SEA CHANGE

Downtown Depoe Bay, Oregon

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE COASTAL OREGON TOWN OF DEPOE BAY (pop. 1,398) advertises itself as  “the world’s smallest harbor”. They might have saved themselves the cost of a sign. Everything about this little strip of gristle along U.S.101 suggests small, conveying the unmistakable feeling that you are Miles From This, A Further Piece Up The Road From That, or On The Way To Elsewhere. This place right here, though, is not much more than craggy connection tissue between other places, places  that have substantially more going on.

But then there is that coastline, most of it seen in five minute out-of-the-car stretches by passersby who follow the signs for the Whale Watching Center. The decidedly no-nonsense concrete slab that houses said center sits atop a pile of blackened, stony scab that boasts but one break in its protective sea wall, a narrow channel that admits  just one boat at a time (tourist charter local fishing skiff, or Coast Guard cutter) from the “harbor” across the street, a small collection of crafts most towns would label a “marina”. This traffic flow is regulated by the outcome of the daily conundrum, will there be whales, or, more accurately, will whales, or anything else, be visible beyond a hundred yards?

And yet, even swallowed up in soupy fog, the snaky fingers of which close upon the coast like grasping, ghostly fingers balling into a fist, Depoe Bay could make Melville’s Ishmael himself pine for the open sea. Paradoxically, it reveals all and conceals all at the same moment. It’s a portal to departures, an end point to journeys, a portent, a welcome, a warning…..and an irresistible itch that only a camera seems able to scratch.

Coastal towns like Depoe can subsist on their four blocks of bar-laden business district, their single low-power oldies radio station, their preciously tacky gift shoppes, the gallons of chowder dispensed each day. But the real show is the one that won’t stay still, the one that is equal parts miracle and menace, doldrum and dream. With it, the Depoe Bays of the world maintain their tenuous spots on the map. Without it, all poetry vanishes in a bank of mist.


DO MESS WITH MR. IN-BETWEEN

Slot Canyon (2016)

Slot Canyon (2016)

By MICHAEL PERKINS

JOHANNES GUTTENBURG, THE MAN WHO DEVELOPED THE FIRST PRACTICAL SYSTEM FOR MOVABLE TYPE, is also said to have invented a kind of periscope, the better to peer over the teeming throngs at the local virgintennial festival. And while there is no record of what he was trying to see (or, more importantly, if he actually did see it), the longing to extend one’s vision around blind corners is one of the tantalizing mysteries of photography. The fact that we can’t make that 45-degree turn infuses many an image with a delicious kind of suspense.

Often when we compose a photo we imply the existence of a certain hidden something that the still image will forever shield from our detection. We photograph shadows that have no progenitors, streets that are halfway concealed by our shooting angle, and, always, the continuation of patterns and dramas that continue outside the boundaries of the frame. That frame has to be drawn somewhere, after all, and no matter how complete we attempt to make our stories within it, the imagination wants to stray toward whatever was “composed out” of the final product.

And therein lies one of the superb teases of our art. We can select scenes that deliberately torture the eye by denying access to What’s Over That Way or Where Does That Lead. We can abruptly rob the eye of the visual payoff for a conundrum that we ourselves have created. We can lie, cheat and steal. That is, I mean, who says you have to play fair with your viewer? Oh, you want me to tell you everything about this picture? Nuts. Figure it out yourself. Was it Colonel Mustard with a candlestick in the study, or….?

The master shot of the above image was a fairly typical out-the-window view from a hotel room, and originally ran a lot wider. Then it occurred to me that I could almost see something between the two buildings, and I re-cropped to make that “almost” the main part of the picture. Remaking the landscape view into a square introduced a little claustrophobia into the process, forcing the view exactly where I wanted it to hit. And finally, I desaturated all the colors in the shot except the orange of the sodium street lamps to amp up the glow in the aperture between the buildings.

I’m not suggesting that you intentionally make pictures with the sole purpose of messing with people’s minds. But, hee hee, you totally can. What’s around the corner? What’s up the street, beyond the curtain, just out of frame? Your picture, your game, your intentions. Take your audience’s eyes where you want them, and leave them there….between one choice and another.

 


DESIGN FOR LIVING

A view from the roof of the David Wright House, Frank Lloyd Wright's gift to his son, built in 1950 and now being prepped for complete restoration. The detached guest house and Camelback Mountain are in the distance.

A view into the courtyard of the David Wright House, Frank Lloyd Wright’s gift to his son, built in Phoenix, Arizona in 1950 and now being prepped for complete restoration. The detached guest house and Camelback Mountain are in the distance.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT IT WAS, the final residential design completed by the late Frank Lloyd Wright, mysteriously unsung in every major study of his late work and absent from nearly every retrospective on the cantankerous colossus of twentieth-century architecture. The house, designed for his son David in the Arcadia neighborhood of central Phoenix, Arizona, rose from the desert in 1950 and almost immediately faded from popular view, staying under the radar less than a mile from Camelback Mountain, the sight of which dictated the site of the home, in one of Wright’s most dramatic examples of organic architecture.

And now, just a few years after since daughter-in-law Gladys Wright’s death at the age of 104 and a blink of time since an interim owner first threatened the place with demolition, it is, in 2016, about to sink back from view once more, as the benevolent millionaire who saved it confers with various local factions on the best route to its complete restoration. Tours, which, for the past year have allowed visitors from around the world to walk through what Wright called a solar hemicycle design, his recipe for “how to live in the southwest”, will be suspended. 3-D laser scans will be studied to see where the house’s sixty-five year old foundations need to be fortified and repaired. And, for a time, this remarkably unique dwelling will again be beyond the reach of the camera.

Since The Normal Eye began, we have occasionally mounted photo essay pages featuring singular places, sites too special to be addressed in one or two images. The most recent of these was a tour of author Edith Wharton’s home, The Mount, in Massachusetts. And today, we’ve added a new tab at the top of the blog titled Wright Thinking, with select photos of the David Wright home and its detached guest house, in an attempt to remind people that this hidden treasure does, indeed, survive in the American West.

The essay format seem appropriate because the Wright home is difficult house to convey in just a single photograph, rising from the desert floor in a continuous circular ramp that climbs to the house proper, a 2000 square-foot crescent of rooms mounted on concrete piers and looking north to Camelback Mountain with a window array that presents a view arc of over 200 degrees. Within and without are Wright’s signature components: dramatic furniture design; innovative use of humble materials, from linoleum to concrete; a visionary use of solar energy; and the most Wright of Wright ideas, the organic credo that the site comes first, the house second, and never the other way around.

So thumb through our impromptu Wright family album and visit the house’s wonderful website at www.davidwrighthouse.org to keep apprised of the next sighting of one of the master’s final bows.


COME EARLY / STAY LATE

Gainey Ranch, 2015. 1/320 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

Gainey Ranch, Phoenix, 2015. 1/320 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PUBLIC SPACES OFTEN LOSE THEIR POWER AS GRAND DESIGNS once they actually are occupied by the public. If you have ever leafed through books of architectural renderings, the original drawings for squares, plazas, office buildings or other mass gathering places, the elegance of their patterns is apparent in a way that they cease to be, once they are teeming with commuters or customers.

This doesn’t mean that humans “spoil” the art of architecture, however, the overlay of drama and tension created by the presence of huge hordes of people definitely distracts from an appreciation of the beauty that is so clean and clear in a place’s sketch phase. Photographically, people as design objects tend to steal the scene, if you will, making public settings less dramatic in some ways. That’s why I like to make images of such locales when they are essentially empty, since it forces the eye to see design as the dominant story in the picture. I suppose that I’m channeling the great designers and illustrators that influenced me as a young would-be comic book artist. It’s a matter of emphasis. While other kids worked on rendering their superheroes’ muscles and capes correctly, I wanted to draw Metropolis right.

I recently began driving to various mega-resorts in the Phoenix, Arizona area to capture scenes in either early morning or late afternoon. Some are grand in their ambition, and more than a few are plain over-the-top vulgar, but sometimes I find that just working with the buildings and landscaping as a designer might have originally imagined them can be surprising. Taking places which were meant to accommodate large gatherings of people, then extracting said people, forces the eye to align itself with the original designer’s idea without compromise. Try it, and you may also find that coming early or staying late at a public area gives you a different photographic perspective on a site. At any rate, it’s another exercise in re-seeing, or forcing yourself to visualize a familiar thing eccentrically.


EXTENDING THE INVITATION

Sinuous, 2013. The river's journey takes it, and your eyes, back into the picture.

Sinuous, 2013. The river’s journey takes it, and your eyes, back “into” the picture.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHY AND PAINTING, DESPITE ENGAGING THEIR AUDIENCES IN VERY DIFFERENT WAYS, have retained one common aim over the centuries, at least when it comes to pictorial or scenic subjects. Both the photo and the canvas arrange their visual information on a two-dimensional surface, and both seek to draw the viewer’s eye into a depth that is largely illusionary. The cameraman and the painter both contrive to create the illusion that the distance from front to back in their works is as real as the distance from side to side.

In terms of simulating depth, some photographs benefit from both shadow and light, which alternatively “model” the information in an image, making it seem to “pop” in some faux-dimensional sense. But the best and simplest trick of composition is what we popularly term the “leading line”, information that trails from the front of the picture and pulls the viewer’s attention to an inevitable destination somewhere deeper back in the scene.

Putting a picture together this way ought to be the most automatic of instincts in the composition of a photograph, but it still is formally taught, as if it were less than obvious. In fact, it just means extending an invitation to someone to join you “in” the photograph.

Minutes Away, 2012. The girders give you a stick-straight diagonal from journey to destination.

Minutes Away, 2012. The girders give you a stick-straight diagonal from journey to destination.

Trails, paths, railroad tracks, lines of trees or phone poles….these are all examples of information that can start at one side of a photo and track diagonally to the “back” of the image, making the eye experience a kind of gravity, tugging it toward the place you want their gaze to end up. It is also the easiest way to force attention to a central subject of interest, sort of like inserting a big neon arrow into the frame, glowing with the words over here.

Leading lines are a landscape’s best friend, as well, since the best landscapes are arranged so that the focal point of the story is streamlined and obvious. Anyone who has ever shown too much in a landscape will tell you that what fails in the composition is that it allows the viewer to wander around the place wondering what the point of the picture is. The use of a powerful leading line gives the illusion of depth and corrals the eyes of your audience to the exact spot you need them to be for full effect.

Composition is the most democratic of photographic skills. It’s easy, it’s free, and anyone from a point-and-shooter to a Leica addict can use it effectively. Bottom line: there are great things happening in your pictures. Invite the people inside.


AS THE WORLD TURNS

The southwest U.S. does autumn on the soft pedal.

Abiquiu, New Mexico, 2013. The southwest U.S. does autumn on the soft pedal.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

—-That country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain.—–Ray Bradbury

AUTUMN IS SNEAKY IN THE SOUTHWEST. Much of the low desert regions may never betray the transformation that is rotating the color wheel in most of the rest of the world, and then, suddenly, there is the shock of red, the blaze of orange, the yellow of golden apples. Many of our trees do not shed, and there are parts of Arizona, California and New Mexico where you could snap a landscape and challenge anyone to guess in which month it was taken. But, as I say, there are surprises.

There are fruits that fall and go back to the earth. There are strange and alien breeds of gourd popping up as invaders at farmers’ markets. And with these visitations come remembrance, and the chance for the camera to recall all the unrealized dreams, misty dawns, evening cold snaps and afternoons of quiet contemplation that accompanies fall so hypnotically in the rest of the country. We here in the southwest have our autumn reverie doled out in small spoonfuls, but it penetrates just the same. The shadows grow longer. The memory uncorks its vintages. The world turns, and there is that slow rhythm of life winding down.

I only long for my midwestern roots but briefly each year. I can still feel the earth turning when some inner clock tells me it’s time. Sometimes I can’t look out my window and find evidence of what my atoms know to be true. And sometimes I get a  moment to steal.

That’s what cameras are for. To remind us how to be, at least in glimpses, autumn people.


DEPTH OF FEELING

By MICHAEL PERKINS

OFTEN, THERE ARE ONLY SCANT MOMENTS TO DETERMINE HOW TO “USE” PEOPLE IN YOUR PHOTOGRAPHS. The decision as to how prominently a person figures in the overall scheme of a given image is frequently made on the fly, and your result will reflect whether that person is an element of the picture or a select feature.

Of course, you can wind up with wonderful photos either way, which is one of the most attractive aspects of picture making. This is all multiple choice, and there is no wrong answer. Also, if the answer was right for you, chances are that it will be so judged by others. Your conviction carries the picture to its desired audience, if you will.

This October, I fell into a virtual pot of gold on a trip to visit friends in rural New Mexico, since the entire countryside was awash in a gilded flood of yellow with the turn of the leaves. You could literally point the camera at a trash can, and, if it was next to a cottonwood tree, the thing became a palace. As a  midwestern kid who has spent nearly fifteen years in the Arizona desert, I was long overdue for the richness of the autumnal palette, and I got a little drunk on it all. I wanted to immortalize every tree, shooting generally at small apertures to get as much sharp detail as possible.

1/80 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

1/80 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

That’s what I was doing in the side yard of a roadside gallery when my wife Marian wandered outside for a brief walk, so the first few frames I shot showed her and the background in about the same focus. Just for variety, I re-focused on mostly her at f/5.6, slightly softening the foliage beyond so it wouldn’t fight with her for the viewer’s attention. In that one frame, she morphed from element to feature, and all that color was put at her service, so to speak. As an afterthought, I made a dupe of the image, lightened it by about a third, then blended the two in Photomatix, since HDR processing also accentuates detail, giving me an even sharper contrast between her sharpness and the softer background. It wasn’t a big bump, processing-wise, just the bow on the box.

Experimental “light field” cameras, once perfected, may make such planning moot, since images taken with this very different technology allows the photographer to redo the depth of field on an image after it has been taken. For now, however, it’s a decision of the moment.

Again, part of the fun.


KICK-STARTING THE ENGINE

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE POPULAR IMAGE OF A BLOCK-STRICKEN WRITER HELPLESSLY STARING AT A BLANK PAGE is enough to send an empathetic chill up the spine of anyone who has ever been haunted by a deadline or stymied by a narrative suddenly gone dry. And I am convinced, as both a writer and a photographer, that there is an equivalent “block” lurking in the shadows for any shooter, a visual desert that produces stretches of formless, pointless images, dry spells that are terrifying because they are open-ended. No one knows why, for everyone from time to time, the pictures stop coming, and no one can predict when they will come back.

It’s terrifying, because it’s as if vision or imagination were accounts that one can overdraw, bouncing artistic checks all over town and leaving you feeling, like Alice, that there is no bottom, only more hole. At least it’s terrifying to me.

Torchlight  Parade, 12/14/13. 1/40, f/2.5, ISO 1000, 35mm.

Torchlight Parade, 12/14/13. 1/40, f/2.5, ISO 1000, 35mm. You work your way through dry spells with what’s at hand. 

As I write this, I have just come off several weeks of scrapings and scraps that should have been photographs but instead are equivalent to something smeared by an ape on his cage wall. I have seldom experienced such an extended period of mega-nothing, and it is only my unswerving oath to myself to shoot something, anything, every single day, that has allowed me to keep faith with the inevitable return of whatever eye I sometime possess. But, I have to admit, I am also suppressing strong urges to, like Norman Bates, lock my camera inside a car trunk and seek out the nearest swamp.

Okay, that’s a tad dramatic, but my current case of the “drys” is unnerving for a particular reason. I am typically able to conjure pictures out of nearly nothing, which is more liberating than having to wait for obvious or “big” projects. You can shoot daily if you can get off on still lifes of plastic spoons. You can’t shoot daily if you need a vacation, a birthday, or a mountain for inspiration. So it’s doubly troubling if you can’t even summon up the humble crumbs needed for some kind of image.

I know, that, at one point or another, something will demand my attention/obsession, and we’ll be off to the races again. But there is always the nagging question. What happens if I can’t kick-start the engine? Everything has a beginning and an end. So…?

Oh, wait, the light is doing something really cool just now…..


CHANGE OF PLAN

Rainy day, dream away. Griffith Observatory under early overcast, 11/29/13. 1/160, f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

Rainy day, dream away. Griffith Observatory under early overcast, 11/29/13. 1/160, f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

by MICHAEL PERKINS

VISUAL WONDERS, IN EVERY HOUR AND SEASON, ARE THE COMMON CURRENCY OF CALIFORNIA’S GRIFFITH OBSERVATORY. The setting for this marvelous facility, a breathtaking overlook of downtown Los Angeles, the Hollywood Hills, and the Pacific Ocean, will evoke a gasp from the most jaded traveler, and can frequently upstage the scientific wonders contained within its gleaming white Deco skin.

And when the light above the site’s vast expanse of sky fully asserts itself, that, photographically, trumps everything. For, at that moment,  it doesn’t matter what you originally came to capture.

You’re going to want to be all about that light.

Upon my most recent visit to Griffith, the sky was dulled by a thick overcast and drenched by a slate-grey rain that had steadily dripped over the site since dawn. The walkways and common decks were nearly deserted throughout the day, chasing the park’s visitors inside since the opening of doors at noon. By around 3pm, a slow shift began, with stray shafts of sun beginning to seek fissures in the weakening cloud cover. Minute by minute, the dull puddles outside the telescope housing began to gleam; shadows tried to assert themselves beneath the umbrellas ringing the exterior of the cafeteria; the letters on the Hollywood sign started to warm like white embers; and people of all ages ventured slowly to the outside walkways.

The moment the light broke, 11/29/13. 1/640 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

The moment the light broke, Griffith’s common areas after the rain,11/29/13. 1/640 sec., f/5.6 (this image),  f/6.3 (lower image), ISO 100, 35mm.

DSC_0365

By just after 5 in the afternoon, the pattern had moved into a new category altogether. As the overcast began to break and scatter, creating one diffuser of the remaining sunlight, the fading day applied its own atmospheric softening. The combination of these two filtrations created an electric glow of light that flickered between white hot and warm, bathing the surrounding hillsides with explosive pastels and sharp contrasts. For photographers along the park site, the light had undoubtably become THE STORY. Yes the buildings are pretty, yes the view is marvelous. But look what the light is doing. 

Like everyone else, I knew I was living moment-to-moment in a temporary, irresistible miracle. The rhythm became click-and-hope, click-and-pray.

And smiles for souvenirs, emblazoned on the faces of a hundred newly-minted Gene Kellys.

“Siiingin’ in the rainnnn…”


REDEMPTION, ONE FRAME AT A TIME

Vigil Variety, 2010. 1/320 sec., f/8, ISO 200, 50mm.

Vigil Variety, 2010. 1/320 sec., f/8, ISO 200, 50mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

AS YOU READ THIS, I AM AVAILING MYSELF OF ONE OF THE MOST SPLENDID BENEFITS KNOWN TO A PHOTOGRAPHER: THE DO-OVER. Ahhh. Feels good just saying it. Do-over; the artistic equivalent of doing penance, of setting things right. Returning to the locales of your earlier misbegotten attempts at a subject, with just the chance that you’ve learned a few new tricks since your last try.

Redemption.

Maybe it’s just that possibility  which thrills….that, and the hope of exorcising those little demons which jab you with pitchforks every time you look at shots from bygone outings. In my case, I’m trying to banish the Ghosts Of New Mexico Trips Past. It’s my third trip to the regions between Alberquerque and Abiquiu, which includes Santa Fe. It’s an odd mix of terrain, economic strata, art, superstition, spectacular vistas and harsh romance. Anything you want to shoot is there to be seen, some of it invisible and needing to be brought froth for the naked eye.

Sisters, 2010. 1/320 sec., f/8, ISO 200. 50mm.

Sisters, 2010. 1/320 sec., f/8, ISO 200. 50mm.

It’s not hard to see why painter Georgia O’Keeffe, banishing herself from the concrete canyons of Manhattan, decided to stage her own do-over in this mysterious land in 1929. O’Keefe had been a photographer’s wife, and painters and photogs are often twin kids of different mothers, so I emotionally understand what she saw in New Mexico, but far more than I have been able to intellectually convey.

So far.

It’s been nearly a decade from my first visit to my third, so I now have a little backlog of what will and won’t work, maybe even an inkling of what I’m trying to show going forward. I didn’t come back from the first two trips empty-handed, but I didn’t come back with the motherlode, either. Since the only real barriers to most photo do-overs are geographic, i.e., the means to return to the scene of the crime, I am really blessed at being able to get another at-bat at this incredible place.

Two strikes, three balls.

I plan to swing for the fences.

Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.


TATTERED BEAUTY

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ONE OF THE MOST MIRACULOUS FEATS OF PHOTOGRAPHY, TO ITS ORIGINAL 19TH-CENTURY AFFICIONADOS, was to freeze time, to arrest or isolate the continuum of progress. Indeed, if you think about it, the act of snatching a fragment of life, of holding it immobile for endless examination, is truly amazing, even at this late date in the art’s development. We spend a huge part of the time that is trying to grab a souvenir of what’s about to become was.

Photography’s great gift, being able to document time’s passing….its ravages, its wear and tear on the things of this life is often focused on the living world; people, trees, the temporary aftermath of a rainstorm, the quick passing of a sunset. But it can be an intriguing way to measure the impact of time on inanimate thing as well. Slicing, dicing, magnifying, and parsing time as we do with cameras, we can concoct an infinite number of ways to pore over the details of things that, in previous ages, only the poets fixated upon. The world has become our microscope lab, a petri dish for experiments in seeing and analyzing.

1/50 sec., f/4.5, ISO 640, 35mm.

“A rose is a rose”. Unless it’s a ragged, fake rose. 1/50 sec., f/4.5, ISO 640, 35mm.

What started this whole train of thought was the recent discovery, under a bed, of an old fabric rose. Sadly, I have long since passed the point where I can actually throw anything away without having some kind of debate inside my skull about whether it’s worth looking at, one more time, before a lens.  In this case, I was intrigued by how frayed and threadbare the thing had become over time, its petals and leaves bereft of any ability to create even the illusion of beauty. Its magic, and thus its reason to exist, had vanished.

I always keep a stack of three magnifying diopters handy to attach to the front of my prime 35 lens, giving me a poor-man’s macro at about 10x magnification, and I was soon within tight enough range to see the ragged edges and unraveled texture of the faux rose. It looked just a bit flat illuminated by soft window light, though, so I tilted the blossom away from the window a tad to deepen the shadows in some petals and give it a little added depth. Too me five minutes to find out the answer to the everlasting photo question, “is this anything?”

Even if such little exercises don’t result in great pictures, they do result in a speedup of the learning curve, and as practice, as seeing everything in as many ways as possible.

Not a big lesson. Just a lot of little ones bunched together.

Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye. 


CUE THE CUMULUS

The Relay, 2013. 1/500 sec., f/8, ISO 100, 55mm.

“Relay”, Black Canyon City, Arizona, 2013. 1/500 sec., f/8, ISO 100, 55mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

AMERICA’S  SOUTHWESTERN STATES COME EQUIPPED WITH SOME OF THE MOST SPECTACULAR SCENERY TO BE HAD ANYWHERE ON EARTH; jutting crags, yawning canyons, vast valleys, and more sky than you’ve ever seen anywhere. Photographically, the mountains, mesas and arroyos deliver on drama pretty much year-round, while the sky can be an endless expanse of, well, not much, really. Compositionally, this means rolling the horizon line in your framing pretty far toward the top, crowding out a fairly unbroken and featureless ocean of blue….except for more humid summer months, when cloud formations truly steal the scene.

It’s true: as the storm season (sometimes called the “monsoon”, for reasons that escape me) accompanies the year’s highest temperatures in desert regions, rolling, boiling billows of clouds add texture, drama, even a sense of scale to skies in Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and California. It’s like getting free props for whatever photographic theatre you care to stage, and it often makes sense to rotate your horizon line back toward the bottom of the frame to give the sky show top billing.

Andreas Feininger's masterful staging of sky for Life Magazine.

Andreas Feininger’s masterful staging of Arizona skies for Life Magazine. Copyrighted image.

Early photographers often augmented the skies in their seascapes and mountain views by layering multiple glass negatives, one containing ground features, the other crammed with “decorator” clouds. The same effect was later achieved in the darkroom during the film era. Hey, any way you get to the finish line. Suffice it to say that the harvest of mile-high cloud banks is particularly high in the desert states’ summer seasons, and can fill the frame with enough impact to render everything else as filler.

I still marvel at the monochrome masterpiece by Life magazine’s Andreas Feininger, Texaco Station, Route 66, Seligman, Arizona, 1947, which allows the sky overhead to dwarf the photo’s actual subject, creating a marvelous feeling of both space and scale. I first saw this photo as a boy, and am not surprised to see it re-printed over the decades in every major anthology of Life’s all-time greatest images. It’s a one-image classroom, as all the best pictures always are. For more on Feininger’s singular gift for composition, click the “related articles” link below.

Big Sky country yields drama all along the America southwest. And all you really have to do is point.

Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye. 


LEAVE THEM WANTING MORE

Huck Finn Sneaks Ashore.

Huck Finn Sneaks Ashore. 1/400 sec., f/8, ISO 100, 55mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PAINTERS INSTINCTIVELY KNOW WHEN IT’S TIME TO REVEAL, AND WHEN IT’S BEST TO CONCEAL. Dark passages or hidden detail within a painting are accepted as part of the storytelling process. That is, what you don’t see can be as valuable a visual element as what you’ve chosen to show. By contrast, many photographers seem to come to this conclusion late , if ever. That is, we’re a little twitchy at not being able to illuminate every corner of our frame, to accurately report all the detail we see.

We try to show everything, and, in so doing, we defeat mystery, denying the viewer his own investigative journey. We insist on making everything obvious. Unlike painters, we don’t trust the darkness. We never “leave them wanting more”.

Fortunately, fate occasionally forces our hand.

The image at the top of this post started out as an attempt to capture the activity of an entire family that was walking their dog near a break in the dense trees that line the creek at Red Rocks Crossing in Sedona, Arizona. The contrast between the truly dark walking paths beneath the trees and the hyper-lit creek and surrounding hardpan is like night and day. The red rocks and anything near them, especially in the noonday sun, reflect back an intense amount of glare, so if your shots are going to include both shady foliage and sunlit areas, you’re going to have to expose for either one or the other. You might be able to get a wider range of tones by bracketing exposures to be combined later in post-processing, but for a handheld shot of moving people, your choices are limited.

I was trying to come to terms with this “either/or” decision when nearly everyone in the family moved away from the creek and into the dense foliage, leaving only one small boy idling at creekside. Feeling my chance of capturing anything draining away, I exposed for the creek, rendering the boy as a silhouette just as he made a break into the woods to rejoin his family. No chance to show detail in his face or figure: he would just be a dark shape against a backdrop of color. The decision to “make things more complicated” had already been taken away from me.

I had what I had.

Turns out that I could not have said “little boy” any better with twice the options. The picture says what it needs to say and does so quietly. No need to over-explain or over-decorate the thing. Darkness had asserted itself as part of the image, and did a better storytelling job all by itself.

I had much more time to calculate many other shots that day, but few of my “plans” panned out as well as the image where I relinquished control completely.

Hmmm….

Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter #MPnormaleye


FAREWELL, THING 1 AND THING 2

Sunshine Superman: Our landscaper floats with the greatest of ease between our now departed palm trees.

Sunshine Superman: Our landscaper floats with the greatest of ease between our now departed palm trees. 1/400 sec., f/8, ISO 100, 86mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

BETTER MINDS THAN MINE have already taken note of the fact that 2013 marks the 100th anniversary of the penning of Joyce Kilmer’s poem Trees, a short bit of cozy verse which is either beloved sentiment or dreadful dreck, depending on which literary camp you pitch your tent in. I would have to confess that I find Kilmer’s ditty too cute by half, sort of the rhyming equivalent of a Thomas Kinkade painting, but, that said, faced with either the specious cause of “progress” or the faith it takes to plant trees, I side with the trees.

Every time.

Sunset Shade.

Sunset Shade: 1/500 sec, f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

This particular better angel of my nature comes from observing

Coral & Azure

Coral & Azure: 1/100 sec., f/8, ISO 100, 18mm.

my father, to whom a connection between the soil and the soul is palpably real. If he were to assemble his version of The Avengers, he would sub out Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau and St. Francis for Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk, and Cap America. To watch him will twigs to vigorous life, or summon forth roses from wishes over the decades is to truly “get it”. He was Earth Day before Earth Day was cool. He was Rachel Carson in reverse drag.

So I have to pause for just a post’s-worth of mourning at the recent loss of two enormous palm trees from our place in Phoenix. These were not important trees in any grand sense; they afforded no shade, bore no fruit, marked no key battlefield. No children’s swings ever hung from their heights, and, as for sheltering purposes,  they were little more than a beak sharpener for the neighborhood’s woodpecker.

Still.

The palms’ annual shower of spring litter had become a sore point between our team and the next neighbor over. What had, at lesser heights, been at least decorative additions to the yard had become, twenty years on, a pain in the astroturf. So down Thing One and Thing Two went, and, with them, one of my favorite visual elements in that part of the property. Going back through the foto files in the depths of the Perk Cave recently, I saw them taking a star turn, again and again, most notably as a skybound workout for our daring landscaper. He was part of the crew that eventually sliced, diced, and hauled them away, and with respect and admiration, his lofty Olympic feat is featured here.

So, even though I will never exactly be the Lorax, and even though I think Kilmer was a hack, I myself seldom see a “poem lovely as a tree”, and I still peer quizzically when its old hunk of skyspace seems deserted somehow.

I suddenly feel like planting something.

Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye. 


GIVING EVERYTHING AND MORE

Kids are hungry. That means an early working day for Mom.

Kids are hungry. That means an early working day for Mom. 1/640 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 300mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IN THE SPRING, JUST OUTSIDE OUR FRONT DOOR, THE MOST POIGNANT METAPHOR FOR MOTHERLY LOVE PLAYS OUT in the arms of our immense saguaro cactus. The trunk of this desert giant is regularly pockmarked by the peckings of improvised dwellings, which are temporary apartments for woodpeckers, thrashers and other breeds, and crude nests are typically crammed into the crevices between trunk and arm, so, whatever the season, we are well used to birdsong as the first sound of the morning.

But during late April and early May, an extra dimension of magic occurs when the typically blunt arms sprout hundreds of buds, and, in turn, bundles of gorgeous white cactus flowers. The blossoms are short-lived, opening and folding up dead within the space of a single day, but, for the earliest hours of their brief existence, they are life itself, not only to the regular bird crowd but also the seasonal surplus that flies in for breakfast. Between the blooms and the bugs which orbit them (also in search of nectar), it’s a smorgasbord.

That’s when I think of the sacrifice of mothers.

Birds, like most mothers you know, also spend every waking hour of their days foraging, building, sheltering, feeding, and fretting over the fates of their young. They tremble as their youngsters fledge; they learn to deal with the separation that must occur when their babies become adults in their own right; they deal with the sorrow over those who are destined never to fly. And they go on.

There is a kind of happy terror involved in being a mother, be you bird or biped, and the triumph of Mothers’ Day is that, somehow, that terror is faced, even embraced…..because the gold at the end of that particular rainbow is beyond price.

Hug a mother today, even if she’s not your own.

Especially if she’s not your own.

Connect, and say thank you.

After all, they taught us how to fly.

follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye