By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF PHOTOGRAPHER RICHARD AVEDON’S MOST PERSONAL (and most controversial) projects involved the documentation of the deterioration and death of his beloved father. In a similar vein, Annie Leibovitz chronicled her partner Susan Sontag’s brave but ultimately unsuccessful battle with cancer. Both series are riveting and heartbreaking, truly valiant attempts by artists to face the most terrifying aspect of life, namely its end. I admire both works, as I do many others that traffic in the same aims.
But I just can’t bring myself to photograph my own father (who turns ninety at this writing) in that way. It’s not that I lack the courage. Or the curiosity. I might even possess the clinical detachment it would require. But if photography has meant anything to me, it’s been about focusing on what’s most important. And the impending end of Dad’s life is of no importance, especially if compared to the quality of the life he has lived. I just can’t make despairing pictures of him. Not on purpose, anyway.
Technically, I could easily record tender, textured studies of how fragile his marvelously gifted artist’s hands have become. I could dwell endlessly on the inexorable appetite of time in robbing him of his balance, his eyesight, even, occasionally, his memory. But while any of those factors might produce pictures that were poignant, even eloquent, they would not be true to the spirit of the things that have animated and excited him over a lifetime. Ideas. Passions. Projects. A love of every manifestation of the artistic impulse, from the avalanche of books that littered every corner of our house to the lazy summer Sundays when he and I would lay on a sheet on the living room floor near the box fan, put My Fair Lady on the hi-fi, and be transported to 1910 London. Life is certainly, to a degree, about setbacks. But it’s also about being indomitable. Yes, that’s it. I’ve slung a lifetime of compliments in Dad’s direction, but indomitable is the word that finally sums him up. Hemingway once said that a man can be destroyed, but not defeated. God knows I’ve been around to see the world take a whack at accomplishing the former process. Gladly, I have never witnessed the latter. The trips down to the canvas don’t count. The journeys back up from the canvas do.
The image seen here began as an experiment with a particular art lens of mine. It’s based on selective focus, which means that you create pictures that actually conceal and much as they reveal. That means a less-than-reliable rendering of aged skin, a gauzy interpretation of the harder textures of aging. As for the sunglasses, while jaunty, they are not an attempt by the Chief to be cool but rather a very needful protection against over-loading his eyes with harsh light. And still, the overall affect, at least to me, is relaxed, comfortable. In this picture, I see no Sick Old Man. I see (or choose to see, maybe) an update on the dashing blockade runner I grew up with. The borderline shy smile, the posture of someone recalling a really good story. It’s the central nugget of his personality, which survives intact to this day, even if the machine that carries it around throws more cogs than it used to.
Photographs of such a man have to be resilient, even defiant. I grew up with too many instances of his quoting Dylan Thomas’ exhortation to “rage, rage, against the dying of the light” to snap pictures of him as weak or downhearted. And, of course, the man who loved that poem still bubbles up, even in conversations that are mostly about trouble or turmoil. Earlier this week, to change the subject from Time’s latest assaults on him and Mother, I mentioned that I had sent my sister “something you can use on your birthday.”
A pause, then:
“That’d be the motorcycle, right?”
“Yes”, I said, laughing with gratitude and relief, ” but I didn’t pop for the sidecar. I thought it would be too showy.”
Joe Cool was still on the job. And as for that Time Machine thing, you can take it and stick it.
Happy Birthday Daddy/Dad/Pop/Poppa/Daddy
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE GREATEST BONUSES OF THE APPS ERA IN PHOTOGRAPHY is how fast certain effects and processes in picture-making have moved from proprietary functions to discretionary ones. Certain “looks” which were the sole domain of well-funded professionals in the film era have been democratized to an insane degree, allowing many more of us to make images that required expensive gear or exhaustive training (or both) just a heartbeat ago.
Selective focus is but one such area. Manipulating sharpness within sections of an image used to be the stuff of cunning calculation and infinite patience…in both shooting and post-processing. Now it’s yours for the flick of a button. The app installs, you click the picture, and you massage the results. Minutes from start to finish. And manufacturers of conventional cameras have had to react to the immediacy of effects available in the mobile market, re-introducing art lenses and specialized optics (think Lomo and Lensbaby) that allow shooters to add “artifacts” or “classic film looks” to their work as they are shooting. At this rate, it’s only a matter of time before these proprietary (think expensive) art lenses become more discretionary (easier to use and cheaper).
When focus or any other main element in picture-making becomes more flexible, people experiment more and more. That, in turn, increases the number of average shooters who produce more sophisticated work. It’s part convenience, part economics: once the ability to do something on an occasional whim is granted to more people through innovation or pricing, the exotic becomes the normal, and the entire art advances. Photography began as a tinkerer’s hobby, costly and clunky in its execution. However, once it solved those problems, it went viral (or whatever one went in the 1800’s). And now digital apps are leading the entire market toward another level of ease and affordability.
The two pictures you see here were both, in fact, taken with camera-based lenses….but, those lenses are both infinitely more affordable to me today than they might have been a generation ago…something driven in part by the digital apps revolution. That means I had the option of trying two vastly different focal approaches on the same subject with little more effort than it took to swap one lens out for another. I used standard optics for this exercise because, frankly, the acuity and control in most mobiles is still less than I’d prefer. But that will change, and quickly. In just a few evolutionary clicks from now, I will be able to do this exact same study within my phone….cheaper, faster, and with less baggage to lug around. Will I abandon my traditional lenses at that point? I honestly can’t say. But if I don’t, I hope I have a better reason than “that’s not the way we used to do it.”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CHOICES ABOUT FOCUS MIGHT JUST BE AMONG THE MOST IMPORTANT DECISIONS that a photographer will face. Clarity, sharpness, precision, call it what you might, focal crispness is a crucial determinant in the creation of an image, no less than light and subject matter. And it’s one of the easiest factors to manage, available to any one from the humblest point-and-shooter to master technicians on the Hubbell telescope.
There is a tendency for us to mentally default to an idea of “sharpness” when we hear the word focus, as if the only way to faithfully reproduce reality is strict adherence to that standard. But photography has never really been about reality, any more than painting or prose. We can’t help but add some small interpretive something to the process of making a picture, even if we believe a machine is largely in charge of the process. Amazingly, with very little effort, we can change the perception of an image by tiny adjustments in what is clear and what remains hazy or soft, straying selectively from the arbitrary sharpness standard.
Some subjects are rendered too coldly, too clinically, when subjected to razor focus, so that what you may gain in documentary detail you lose in intimacy, or in that undefinable feeling of being close. Applying this line of reasoning to my personal affection for architecture, there are buildings where the hard look of precision is perfectly suited to the subject; jutting skyscrapers, massive bridges, towering monuments, and the like. But put me in a small town, where the entire space feels sealed off from time itself, and the look, at least for me, becomes softer. Details take a back seat to feelings, and the harsh light of midday gives way to a soft, dreamy haze at late afternoon. The secrets of side lots, alleys and back yards become scavenger hunts. In both the big and small cities, focus is the key element in the creation of the image. And, also, in both cases, an advance visualization of the final result dictates exactly the degree of focus required.
Lenses and cameras possess wonderful technical properties that can deliver a slew of exotic effects. Still, with virtually no expense or fuss, a smarter mastery of focus is a decisive, even dramatic factor in helping a photograph develop its most effective language.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WINDOW TO THE SOUL: that’s the romantic concept of the human eye, both in establishing our emotional bonds with each other and, in photography, revealing something profound in portraiture. The concept is so strong that it is one of the only direct links between painting (the way the world used to record emotional phenomena) and photography, which has either imitated or augmented that art for two full centuries. Lock onto the eyes, we say, and you’ve nailed the essence of the person.
So let’s do a simple comparison experiment. In recent years, I’ve begun to experiment more and more with selective-focus optics such as the Lensbaby family of art lenses. Lensbabies are unabashedly “flawed” in that they are not designed to deliver uniform focus, but, in fact, use the same aberrations that we used to design out of lenses to isolate some subjects in intensely sharp areas ( so-called “sweet spots”) surrounded by gradually increasing softness.
As a great additional feature, this softness can even occur in the same focal plane as a sharply rendered object. That means that object “A”, five feet away from the camera, can be quite blurry, while object “B”, located just inches to the side of “A”, and also five feet from the camera, can register with near-perfect focus. Thus, Lensbaby lenses don’t record “reality”: they interpret mood, creating supremely subjective and personal “reads” on what kind of reality you prefer.
Art lenses can accentuate what we already know about faces, and specifically, eyes…that is, that they remain vital to the conveyance of the personality in a portrait. In the first sample, Marian’s entire face takes on the general softness of the entire frame, which is taken with a Lensbaby Sweet 35 lens at f/4 but is not sharply focused in the central sweet spot. In the second sample, under the same exposure conditions, there is a conscious effort to sharpen the center of her face, then feather toward softness as you radiate out from there.
The first exposure is big on mood, with Marian serving as just another “still life” object, but it may not succeed as a portrait. The second shot uses ambient softness to keep the overall intimacy of the image, but her face still acts as a very definite anchor. You “experience” the picture first in her features, and then move to the data that is of, let’s say, a lower priority.
Focus is negotiated in many different ways within a photograph, and there is no empirically correct approach to it. However, in portrait work, it’s hard to deny that the eyes have it, whatever “it” may be.
Windows to the soul?
More like main clue to the mystery.
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.
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.
- framing an emotion (afternoonwalks.wordpress.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHEN SORTING MY IMAGES INTO KEEPERS AND CLUNKERS, I ALWAYS SUFFER THE SAME BIAS. Whereas some people might be too eager to find reasons why a picture should be inducted into the former group, I nearly always search for reasons to toss them into the latter one. I always know right away what I’ve failed to achieve in a given frame, and its flaws glow like safety orange in my brain to the point where I not only can’t credit myself for the photo’s stronger elements, I can no longer even see them. I therefore consign many pictures to the rubbish heap, a few of them prematurely.
Usually, however my first call is the right one. I very seldom revisit a picture I initially disliked and find something to redeem it. So it was kind of headline news when I recently “saved” a photo I had originally (and wisely) savaged. Hell, I’m still ambivalent, at best, about it, but I can’t truly classify it as an outright Lost Child anymore.
It came from a random day of practice I had undertaken with a Lensbaby, one of those effects lenses designed to give you the ability to manually throw parts of your image out of sharp focus, in fact to rotate around and create various “sweet spots” of sharpness wherever you want to. I don’t use the thing a lot, since it seems, on some level, damned silly to put defects into your pictures on purpose just to convince yourself you are, ahem, an artiste. But, all work and no play, etc. etc., so I was clicking away inside a dimly lit building at a railway museum in which a huge layout of miniature train dioramas is a regular attraction. I seemed to be going out of my way to create a picture that would normally be “three strikes and you’re out”…..that is:
poorly lit, and loving it
poorly focused, otherwise known as, sure, I meant to do that, and
a half-baked attempt to make something fake appear real.
Only one of the shots sparked my interest at all, purely because it seemed to contain a sort of… mystery. So many dark corners. So many unexplained details. A very disorienting, dreamlike quality that had to have jumped into the camera without any help from me. It looked both hyper-real and utterly false, simultaneously fearsome and fascinating. Again, this all happened in spite of, not because of, any action on my part. I added no post-processing to the shot, except to desaturate it and slather on a layer of sepia. Other than that, I left it in its original sloppy, random state.
And then I decided it was still junk and forgot about it for a few months.
Just why I have, in recent days, tried to rehabilitate my thinking about it is anyone’s guess. Like I sad at the top, I look for reasons to reject my work, not excuse it. This has little to do with modesty. It’s just an admission that control is so much a part of my make-up that I recoil from images where I seem to have absolutely relinquished that control. They scare me a little.
But they thrill me a little too. And, as Vonnegut says, so it goes.
Perhaps the best thing is to maintain the Keepers and Clunkers piles, but add a third, labeled “Not Really Sure”.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.
- Peering Through a Shaft of Light (johnbee.ca)