By MICHAEL PERKINS
CHOICES ARE WHAT HAPPENS WHEN TIME AND OPPORTUNITY MEET. The more one has the chance to see, coupled with the leisure to explore or appreciate the value of what one sees, the more a photograph has the freedom to breathe, to percolate, or indeed to happen at all. And perceiving when all these conditions are in play can lead to images that often were not on your original agenda, but revealed themselves while you were preparing to do “something else”. Let’s think of it as being divided into journey pictures and destination pictures.
The destination picture is, of course, the one we came to shoot, the task or target of the day. The journey picture makes itself manifest as we are on the way to the destination….walking, waiting, enduring detours or delays. Picture the destination as a mountain top and the journey as the steps up that mountain. We can visualize how great the view from the summit will be, but we can also learn to see opportunities at every stage of our upward trek. Eventually some of our favorite pictures are those we shoot of something else on the way. They may in fact be better than the destination shot we had in mind.
Walks along paths, views from connecting trains or buses, even, as seen in the above image, transitions between floors in stairwells may not be “about” something as much as our main photographic quarry. However, it’s short-sighted to think of only point “A” or point “B” as worthy of our attention, when things at point “A-plus-1/4” or point “B-minus-1/2” might also be viable. Remember what we said at the beginning about the meeting of time and opportunity. Consider the technique that accompanies our formal plan. We’d be likely to take all the time and shots we felt necessary once we’d ascended our imaginary mountain. We’d resist being rushed. We’d be eager to explore every angle, exposure and compositional choice. However, we can get into such a rush trying to get topside that we ignore any or all of the fruits available on our ascent, or we might be in some kind of self-imposed hurry that would prevent our slowing down along the way to seize many other chances. Certainly, it’s human to prioritize things, and so we arrive at many photographic sites with a list of things we must do, a list-making exercise that can shut down our full creativity, narrowing the flow of “acceptable” subject matter, turning an open mind into a kinked garden hose.
The shot you see here was actually a very instantaneous one, the keeper among three or four frames, and, unless you love stairs, the picture is not “about” anything per se: the subject matter, the story, is light. But look at the light there was to work with! It has gradations from yellow to gold to red to green: it reveals and conceals at the same time: and it’s such a great “explainer” of the marble texture that nothing else needs to be going on in the shot….it just is. Now, everyone is different. I myself could easily have missed this shot, fixated as I was on where I was heading and worrying about having enough time once I got there. But trying for this image only cost me seconds, yet it was time enough to pair with opportunity and give me…options. Learning to see is not only about having things register on the optic nerve: it’s also about learning to think editorially, discriminately. To being open. Looking back over the camera roll this came from, the thing I was scrambling up the stairs to shoot was actually a bit of a disappointment. The thing on the way was, in reality, a better way to spend my time, and exercise my eye.
UP FROM DARKNESS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
(AS YOU READ THIS, I, along with most inwardly inclined photographers, am spending the final days of the present calendar year trying to make some sense of whatever images I’ve attempted over the past twelve months. But I’m only partly interested in compiling so-called “best of” lists, since it’s really up to other eyes to decide whether any one group of my pictures can collectively be called successful. Simply, I can’t really judge how well I’ve done. Not alone, anyway.)
What I try to do instead is to determine if pictures from a given year arced or tended in a particular direction. One thing I have noticed about my work is that it seems to fall, generally, into subject years and light years……groups of shots that are either centered on what I shoot or the conditions under which I do so. 2018 seemed far and away to be about making compositions of light rather than capturing locales.
In more than a few photographs over the past year, I almost seemed to be dragging brighter surfaces out of solid darkness…..but only just enough to make a few details register, leaving significant portions of the finished image lingering in shadow….deliberately under-defined. I have always liked this chiaroscuro, or “Rembrandt” light effect, but this year, I seemed to be aggressively embracing it.
The shot seen here, then, is not meant to explain the building I was shooting, but to reduce it to a pure instance of color, light and design. In a different situation, the picture might have been more reportorial, but in this case, the arrangement of line and pattern was the entire goal of the photo. So, at the end of 2018, no photographic “greatest hits” list for me, just a trend line showing that my curiosity is tracking in a certain measurable direction. Photography is just as much about attempts as it is about achievements. At different junctures, we value one over the other.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I HAVE STRUGGLED OVER A LIFETIME to tell photographic stories with as few elements as possible. It’s not unlike confining your culinary craft to four-ingredient recipes, assuming you can actually generate something edible from such basic tools. The idea, after all, is whether they’ll eat what you’ve cooked.
With images, I’ve had to learn (and re-learn) just how easy it is to lard extra slop onto a picture, how effortlessly you can complicate it with surplus distractions, props, people, and general clutter. Streamlining the visual language of a picture takes a lot of practice. More masterpieces are cropped to perfection than conceived that way.
The super-salesman Bruce Barton once said that the most important things in life can be reduced to a single word: hope, love, heart, home, family, etc. And so it is with photographs: images gain narrative power when you learn to stop sending audiences scampering around inside the frame, chasing competing story lines. Some of my favorite pictures are not really stories at all, but single-topic expressions of feeling. You can merely relate a sensation to viewers, at which point they themselves will supply the story.
As an example, the above image supplies no storyline, nor was it meant to. The only reason for the photo is the golden light of a Seattle sunset threading its way through the darkening city streets, and I have decided that, for this particular picture, that’s enough. I have even darkened the frame to amp up the golds and minimize building detail, which can tend to “un-sell” the effect. And yet, as simple as this picture is, I’m pretty sure I could not have taken it (or perhaps might not even have attempted it) as a younger man. I hope I live long enough to teach myself the potential openness that can evolve in a picture if the shooter will Just. Stop. Talking.
A TAIL OF TWO DUCKS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHING WATER IS A CONSTANTLY NEW CHALLENGE, since it is either an active surface, a static mirror or a revealing microscope, depending on how light on it is read by your camera. As active surface, its waves, surges and ripples break light up into endless shards. As mirror, it reflects clouds or other features that may or may not even be seen in frame, producing a reverse-angle version of reality. And as revealing microscope, it invites you to peer into its depths, providing a glimpse into a hidden world.
One of the cheapest and most effective toys available to deliver all of these renditions of water is the humble circulating polarizing filter, a quick screw-on available for virtually every kind of lens. Just match up the width of the lens threads with a filter that meets those dimensions and you’re all set. Polarizers serve two main purposes for photographers. The first is the ability to render overly bright skies a deep rich blue, helping all color pop with a little deeper impact. The second is to control the amount of glare you want in photographing water. Both functions are dialed up simply by rotating the filter’s movable outer ring, which is how you control the range of the effects you desire.
Polarizers work best when the sun is nearly directly overhead, or at a 90-degree angle with the front of your lens. In fact, though, even if this algebra is a little off, it will still produce a measurable effect, and having the time to shoot and adjust at the same pool or stream will give you an idea of how much you’ll want to apply to control the transparency of the water’s surface.
In the image at the very top of this page the mallard’s wake creates glorious grooves in a forest pond. The polarizer has been rotated for maximum reflective effect of the sky and the tree growth overhead. Earlier in the same shoot, the squatting duck in the lower photo was shot to give a little mirror effect, but with a slight hint of transparency to allow both clouds and shore rocks to be seen in the same shot. That’s the beauty of polarized light; it can be calibrated in real time, so that you know, ahead of the shutter click, just how much you’ve opted for. As is the case with a lot of traditional photo techniques, the use of filters, decidedly old-school in nature, allows more control than trying to manipulate the same shot in post-production.
One caution: although there are dozens of manufacturers for circular polarizing filters, many of them very reasonable in price, there is some variance in the effectiveness of certain brands. Read a lot of user reviews and get the one that delivers the goods in full. Other than that, the true nature of water in your photos can have as much poetry, or mystery, as your fingers can dial up. Neat.
TRUTH VS. REALITY
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ASKED IN 1974 BY AN INTERVIEWER ABOUT THE LEGACY OF THE ACTOR JAMES CAGNEY, director Orson Welles replied that while Jimmy “broke every rule”, “there’s not a fake moment” in any of his movies. He further explained that the star of Public Enemy, White Heat and Yankee Doodle Dandy worked counter to all the conventions of what was supposed to be “realism”, and yet created roles which were absolutely authentic. Cagney, in effect, bypassed the real and told the truth.
As do many photographers, it turns out.
We all have inherited a series of technical skills which were evolved in an attempt to capture the real world faithfully inside a box, and we still fail, at times, to realize that what makes in image genuine to the viewer must often be achieved by ignoring what is “real”. Like Cagney, we break the rules, and, if we are lucky, we make the argument that what we’ve presented ought to be considered the truth, even though the viewer must ignore what he knows in order to believe that. Even when we are not trying to create a so-called special effect, that is, a deliberate trick designed to conspicuously wow the audience, we are pulling off little cheats to make it seem that we played absolutely fair.
The first time we experiment with lighting, we dabble in this trickery, since the idea of lighting an object is to make a good-looking picture, rather than to mimic what happens in natural light. If we are crafty about it, the lie we have put forth seems like it ought to be the truth, and we are praised for how “realistic” a shot appears. The eye likes the look we created, whether it bears any resemblance to the real world or not, just as we applaud a young actor made up to look like an old man, even though we “know” he isn’t typically bald, wrinkled, and bent over a cane.
In the image above, you see a simple example of this. The antique Kodak really does have its back to a sunlit window, and the shadows etched along its body really do come from the slatted shutters upon that window. However, the decorative front of the camera, which would be fun to see, is facing away from the light source. That means that, in reality, it would not glow gold as seen in the final image. And, since reality alone will not give us that radiance, a second light source has to be added from the front.
In this case, it’s the most primitive source available: my left hand, which is ever so slightly visible at the lower left edge of the shot. It’s acting as a crude reflector of the sunlight at right, but is also adding some warmer color as the flesh tones of my skin tint the light with a little gold on its way back to the front of the camera. Result: an unrealistic, yet realistic-seeming shot.
There’s a number of names for this kind of technique: fakery, jiggery-pokery, flimflam, manipulation, etc., etc.
And some simply call it photography.
TWO SKIES, ONE GOAL
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY TIME I HAVE TO MAKE PHOTOGRAPHS ON AN OVERCAST DAY, I actually pray that the weather will deteriorate even further, since a dramatically lousy sky can create better results than an indifferent overcast. Murky weather mutes colors to the texture of bland dishwater, whereas rapidly shifting, strongly contrasty conditions can actually boost colors or create a dimensional effect in which foreground objects “pop” a bit. Keep your rainy days. Give me stormy ones.
Some days an uneven, rolling overcast contains dread darkness on one side and unbroken sun on the other, simulating the effect of a studio in which the subject is floodlit from front but staged against a somber background. This strange combination of natural lighting conditions confers an additional power on even the most mundane objects, and the photographer need do nothing except monitor the changing weather from minute to minute and pick his moment.
I love the architectural features of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, such as the section of one of the exhibit hall rooves, seen above. However, in fair or even grey weather, it has less impact than when it’s front-lit against a threatening cloud bank, so, on a rotten day, it’s worth checking and re-checking to see if it’s been amped up by “jumping away” from the background clouds. Likewise these palm trees:
Simply capitalizing on changes in lighting conditions can create more opportunities than all the lenses and gear in the world. Cheap point-and-shoot or luxuriant Leica, it’s all about the light….plentiful, free, and ever-changing. The ability to sculpt strong images from this most basic commodity is the closest thing to a level playing field for every kind of photographer.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF THE EYES ARE THE WINDOW TO THE SOUL, then certain windows are an eye into contrasting worlds.
Photographers have devised a wide number of approaches when it comes to using windows as visual elements. Many choose to shoot through them with a minimum of glare, as if the glass were not there at all. Others use them as a kind of surreal jigsaw puzzle of reflected info-fragments.
To show these two approaches through the eyes of two great photographers, examine first Eugene Atget’s shots of 19th-century Paris storefronts, which mostly concentrated on shopkeeper’s wares and how they were arranged in display windows. Straightforward, simple. Then contrast Lee Friedlander’s 21st-century layered blendings of forward view and backward reflection (seen at left), which suspends the eye between two worlds, leaving the importance of all that mixed data to the viewer’s interpretation.
Much of my own window work falls into the latter category, as I enjoy seeing what’s inside, what’s outside, and what’s over my shoulder, all in the same shot. What’s happening behind the glass can be a bit voyeuristic, almost forbidden, as if we are not fully entitled to enter the reality on the other side of the window. But it’s interesting as well to use the glass surface as a mirror that places the shop in a full neighborhood context, that reminds you that life is flowing past that window, that the area is a living thing.
Thus, in an urban setting, every window is potentially two-way glass. Now, just because this technique serves some people as a narrative or commentary doesn’t make it a commandment. You have to use the language that speaks for you and to your viewer. Whatever kind of engagement serves that relationship best dictates how you should be shooting. I just personally find layered windows a fun sandbox to play in, as it takes the static quality away from a still photo to some degree, as if the image were imbued with at least the illusion of motion.
Sometimes it’s good to conceal more than reveal, and vice versa. The only “must”, for this or any other technique in photography, is to be totally mindful as you’re creating. Choose what you mean to do, and do it with your eyes fully open.
THE SECOND PASS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOME VISUAL SUBJECTS ARE SO RICH IN POTENTIAL that they evolve from a few essential shots to what, for lack of a better term, passes for a photo “essay”. Such extended coverage of buildings, countries and people used to be common in the heyday of the picture magazine, with up to a dozen pages of images strung together with narrative links in the pages of Life, Look and their many imitators. It’s a great format to work in once you discover a worthy candidate. But, in practical terms, it can be a little like working a checklist.
I document a lot of Art Deco architecture, since it embodies history, abstraction, illustration, design, and fantasy, all in one big fat buffet. That means I spend a lot of time dodging passersby on sidewalks and lingering in lobbies long enough to make the security personnel twitchy. Deco is all about the splendor of detail, some of which can only be revealed by patiently moving from door to grille, elevator to stairway, entrance to entrance, and looking for light that will bring that detail into bold relief.
I used the word checklist a while back because you are often working one in your mind, ticking off the various items as you wander around the site. Gotta do the mezzanine. Need a shot of the ceiling. Did I catch those wall sconces? Thing is, we tend to think of those little check marks as meaning, I’m done here. Moving on….when, in terms of what changing light does to these buildings within a short span of time, we should be actually be thinking, okay, I’ve done the preliminary work. Should go back and check this again in a while. Deco, especially, is rife with reliefs and murals made from a wide variety of materials, many of which will register color and shadows very differently at different times of day. You have to think in terms of “Take One, Take Two”, rather than in the snapshot mentality of “nailed it.”
The images you see here, of the entrance to Vancouver’s magnificent Marine Building (read all about it here) were shot just twenty minutes apart. The top shot shows light landing on the door and its surrounding niche fairly flatly, almost sideways. However, within minutes, as seen in the second shot, the sun has climbed high enough in the sky to blast away at the center of the space, throwing the overhang of the arch into deep shadow. This change intensifies the contrast between raised and flat surfaces and makes the exterior terra-cotta (a material in which the colors are baked right in) more vivid. It also is projecting shadows like crazy. Which version is better? Not the point. It’s about editing choices and being reluctant to think that there is one “official” way to shoot something.
I could show similar changes to the lobby, with light softly entering the stained glass over the door, then crashing through it like a golden ray just minutes later. The point is, exposure is time plus light, and, when tackling a large essay-type project, it’s important to do more than one visualization on key elements. It’s the difference between grabbing a souvenir and creating a keepsake.
TAKING OFF THE TRAINING WHEELS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S HARD TO BE ANGRY WITH ANY TREND THAT MAKES PHOTOGRAPHY MORE DEMOCRATIC, or puts cameras into more hands. Getting more voices in the global conversation of image-making is generally a great things. However, it comes with a price, one which may make many people actually give up or stagnate in their growth as photographers.
We may be killing ourselves, or at least our art, with convenience.
Cameras, especially in mobile devices, have exponentially grown in ease (and acuity) of use over the last fifty years, but they are actually teaching people less and less about what, technically, is happening in the making of an image. The nearly intuitive logic of smaller and easier cameras means that many people, while busily snapping away and producing billions of pictures, are being more and more estranged from any real knowledge of how it’s all being done.
This is a vicious circle, since it guarantees that a greater number of us will be more and more dependent upon our cameras to make the bulk of the creative decisions for us, more obliged to accept what the camera decides to give us. In some very real way, we are being shortchanged by never having had to work with a garbage camera. Let me explain that.
Being forced to do creative work with an unyielding or primitive tool puts the responsibility for (and control of) the art back on the artist. Those who began their shooting careers with limited box cameras understand this already. If you start making pictures with a device that is too limited or “dumb” to do your bidding, then you have to devise work-arounds to get results. That means you learn more about what light does. You learn what ideal or adverse conditions look like. You see what failure is, and begin to dissect what didn’t work for a stronger understanding of what may work next time. You learn to ride a bike without training wheels, and thus never need them.
The above image, taken on manual settings in a less-than-ideal setting, has about a dozen things wrong with it, but the mistakes are all my mistakes, so they retain their instructive power. If something was blown, I know how it can be corrected, since I’m the one who blew it. There is a clear linear learning process that benefits from making bad pictures. And if my camera had done everything itself and the picture still reeked, then I’d be stuck with both failure and ignorance.
Cameras that remove the risk of failure also remove the chance of accidental discovery. If you always get acceptable images, you’re less likely to ask what lies beyond….what, in effect, could be better. You accept mediocrity as a baseline of quality. And editing tools that consist mostly of corrective solutions, from straightening to sharpening, keep you from addressing those errors in the camera, and that, too, robs you of valuable experience.
Convenience, in any art medium, can either abet or prevent excellence. The amount of curiosity and hunger in the individual is the decisive factor in moving from taking to making pictures. For my money, if you’re going to grind out the process of becoming an artist, you can’t rely on equipment that is designed to protect you from yourself.
THE FLEXIBLE FREEZE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS ACROSS THE LAST TWO CENTURIES HAVE CAPITALIZED ON ONE OF THEIR MEDIUM’S BEST TRICKS, the ability to freeze time, the sensation of carving out micro-seconds of reality and preserving them, like ancient scarabs trapped in amber. The thing known as “now”, with the aid of the camera, became something called “forever”, as things which were, by nature, fleeting were granted a kind of immortality. Events became exhibits, things to be studied or re-lived at our whim.
And yet, even as we extract these frozen moments, we mess around the edge of the illusion a bit, making still pictures also convey a sense of motion. Focus is a prime example of this retro-fitting of technique. No sooner had photography evolved the technical means to render sharp images than shooters began to put a little soft imprecision back into their pictures, by a variety of means: slow shutter speeds, time exposures, manual shaking, delayed flashes, and selective focus. Of all these techniques, at least for me, selective focus has proven to be the hardest to master.
Changing the messaging of a photographic story by using focus to isolate some elements and downplay others has always called for real practical knowledge of the workings of lenses and how they create focus as an effect. Recently, digital manipulation has allowed shooters to re-order the focal priorities of a shot after it’s taken, and in just the past few years, commercially available specialty lenses have allowed photographers to pre-select where and when focus will occur in an image, using it as interpretively as color or exposure.
I like to use the Lensbaby family of variable-focus lenses for what I call “flexible freeze” situations, times when focus can be massaged to create the illusion of speed. In the above shot, taken in a high-volume cafe, the small center of tight focus fans out to a near streaky quality at the outer edges of the picture. No one person is rendered sharp enough for features to register, or matter. What’s important here is the sensation of a busy lunch rush, which actually would be diminished if everything was in uniform focus.
Sharpness is certainly desirable in most cases for a strict re-creation of literal reality, but photography has never merely been a recording process. Focus can produce useful abstractions or atmospheres in a shot, so long as the effect serves the story. If it doesn’t help the image speak better, even a flexible freeze can quickly become a tiresome gimmick. Matching tools to goals is what good photography does best.
WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS’ FIRST USES OF FILTERS WERE AS THE TWIST-ON TOOLS designed to magnify, nullify or modify color or light at the front end of a lens. In the digital era, filtration is more frequently added after the shutter clicks, via apps or other post-production toys. You make your own choice of whether to add these optical layers as a forethought or a post-script. However, one of the simplest and oldest of filtering options costs no money and little time, and yet continues to shape many a great image: a window.
No panes are optically identical, just as the lighting conditions that affect them are likewise completely unique, so the way that they shape pictures are constantly in flux, as are the results. It’s no surprise that the shoot-from-the-hip urban photographers who favor spontaneity over all pay little attention to whether shooting through a window “ruins” or “spoils” an image. Taking an ad-lib approach to all photographic technique, the hip shooters see the reflections and reflections of glass as just another random shaper of the work, and thus as welcome as uneven exposure, cameras that leak light, or cross-processed film: another welcome accidental that might produce something great.
Windows can soften, darken or recolor a scene, rendering something that might have been too strait-laced a little more informal. This quality alone isn’t enough to salvage a truly bad shot, but might add a little needed edge to it. The images seen here were both “what the hell” reactions to being imprisoned on tour buses, the kinds that don’t stop, don’t download their passengers for photo or bathroom breaks, or which are booked because I am tired of walking in the rain.
In the case of the tour driver’s cab, his inside command center and personal view are really part of the story, and may outrank what he’s really viewing. In the side-window shot of an early morning in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the tinted glass acted much in the way of a polarizing filter, making the resulting photo much moodier than raw reality would have been.
Which is the point of the exercise. When you feel yourself blocked from taking the picture you thought you wanted, try taking it the way you don’t think you want to. Or just think less.
Wait, what did he just say?
OPEN ALL NIGHT
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHICHEVER SHIFT YOU WORK, YOU ARE FOREVER A STRANGER TO THOSE who work the other side of the workday. And while the majority of us generally fit into the standard 9 to 5 job template, millions of us have our body clocks regularly flipped upside down, our days cloaked in darkness, our brains awake while the city at large sleeps. That means that at any moment, half of us have little comprehension of how the other half lives. There’s a story in that.
And stories need pictures.
Pictorially speaking there has always been a bit of a black market mindset about the night-time, a nether world for some, a regular hangout for others. And with good reason: photography, in its infancy, had to ply its trade largely in sunlight, avoiding scenes which required either too much time, too much prep, or too much patience with slow recording media. But now we live in a very different world, armed with digital computers that look suspiciously(!) like cameras, but which react to light with an efficiency unseen in the entire history of photography.
Capturing the night is no longer a rare technical achievement, and we are really only at the front end of a steadily rising curve of technical enhancement in the area of light sensitivity, with no end in sight. Finally, darkness is something that uniquely colors and reveals reality instead of cloaking it in mystery. There is no longer an end to the shooting day. The image above is by no means an exceptional one, shot with a prime lens open to f/1.8 and a sensor that can deliver manageably low noise even at ISO 1250. More importantly, it is a handheld snap, shot at 1/30 sec…..all but unthinkable just a dozen years ago.
The new golden age of night photography is already apprehended by the youngest generation of shooters, since many of them can’t recall a time when it was a barrier to their expression. And, for those of us longer of tooth and grayer of beard, there is the sensation of being free to wander into areas which used to be sealed off to us. Sun up, sun down, it’s always time to take a picture.
Suddenly your eye is like a great downtown deli.
We’re open all night folks. We never close.
LAST ONES OUT
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CITIES NEVER COMPLETELY CLOSE. We prefer to think of the urban workday as a uniform morning-to-afternoon stretch, but in truth, our concrete forests always harbor legions of people at the margins of those arbitrary time boundaries. Someone has to take out the trash, hunker over the overdue report, or merely cringe at the thought of going home to whomever. I never took a nighttime photo of a city building that was completely dark unless it was in the aftermath of a sudden power cut. There are always the little twinkles of activity, the randomly lit windows, here and there, that remain.
And each window is a story.
Mind you, the story may not ever be revealed in full. We seldom know who’s burning the midnight oil, just as we can’t but guess about their motives, dreams, or dreads. But the light created by their presence is enough to shape images with a little mystery, and that is at the soul of urban photography. In the daytime, everything is evenly lit, and the “after hours” people are rendered invisible. After dark, however, their special qualities shine forth, shaping the mood and character of the most mundane building. Or image.
Some lights are on because other lights are on. If Man “A” is staying at his desk way past dinner, then the lights at Diner “B” must remain on as well, ’cause Daddy needs him a sandwich, and yes, just one more cup of coffee. We don’t see those connections, but we know they, and many others, are there, keeping the lights on, keeping the human drama going. A second look at the city after hours allows us to document part of that drama, and, as is usual in photography, that glimpse may be all we need to whip up a little whimsy.
It’s the truth. It’s actual. Everything is satisfactual. –lyrics from the Oscar-winning song Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY WAS ERRONEOUSLY BILLED, EARLY IN ITS DEVELOPMENT, as a mere recording of reality. This was, of course, an attempt to characterize the picture-making process as more bloodless, less artistic than painting, which was an interpretation of the world. What early haters of the camera failed to realize, of course, was that photographers were just as selective in their depiction of life as painters, since their medium too, was an interpretation…..of isolated moments, of preferred angles, of temporary actuality.
If you look at individual frames within a strip of motion picture film, it becomes perfectly clear that each still image is a self-contained world, with no way to intuit what has come before a given moment nor what will come next. Thus, no one frame is “reality” but a select sample of it. In daily photography, our choice of angle, approach, and especially light can allow us to create an infinite number of “realities” that only exist in the precise moment in which we see and freeze them.
Let’s look specifically at light. As it’s jumbled in multiple reflections, light is particularly precious to the photographer’s eye, since a captured image may recall an effect that even people within inches of the shooter could not see. In the above photo, for example, this mosaic of reflections inside the vestibule of a high-ceilinged building was visible from several specific positions in the foyer. Move yourself three feet either way, however, and this pattern could not be seen at all. In other words, this photographic “reality” came briefly into existence under the most controlled conditions, then was gone.
John Szarkowski, the legendary director of photography for the New York Museum of Modern Art, dedicates an entire section of his essential book The Photographer’s Eye to what he calls “Vantage Point” and its importance to a mastery of the medium. “Pictures (can) reveal not only the clarity but the obscurity of things…and these mysterious and evasive images can also, in their own terms, seem ordered and meaningful.”
Photography is about viewing all of reality and extracting little jewels from within it.
That’s not mere recording.
TAKING YOUR TEMPERATURE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AMERICANS LOVE TO CELEBRATE A WINNER, and they also like to clearly identify who most definitely did not win. We score-keep on everything from fantasy football to number of days on the job without accidental amputations, and we love, love, love to declare someone the champ…in anything. This either/or, winner/loser habit of the western mind, when applied to photography, leads people to argue over which is better…traditional cameras or those imbedded in mobiles, as if such a judgement is possible. Or as if it matters. So, as you rifle through these humble pages, I hope I make it abundantly clear that, from my standpoint, it’s all about the pictures.
The principle difference between, say, DSLRs and phone cameras, to me, is one of method, or how they approach the job of making an image. In full-function cameras, the emphasis can be on how to use the device’s controls and settings to set the terms of your picture before the click. In cellphone cameras, it’s all about how you can massage what the camera was able to give you after the fact, be it with in-phone apps or computer software. You simply can’t impose your will on an iPhone camera until after the picture is taken, and that’s an important distinction. Notice that I did not say better/worse, great/horrible. You just have to decide what’s important to you in a given situation.
Take a very simple choice that is available in even basic point-and-shoot “camera-cameras”, like white balance. Your camera has the option of deciding, for you, how colors should register based on the temperature of the light, or you can over-ride that function and customize it to your heart’s delight, something that, at this point in time, cannot be done on a cellphone camera. Even easier, menus reduce all your white balance options to visual icons (sunburst, house in shade, electric light bulb, etc) depending on how warm you want your pictures. You can even tweak for the precise kind of artificial light you’re working with, from incandescent to flourescent.
As an example, in the above shot, the morning light in the hotel lobby was, on automatic white balance, coming off blue, especially in the shadows. The entire effect of the golden period just after sunrise was being subverted by the camera. Easy fix: just dial it up for a shade setting, bump up the exposure a tad (slower shutter, higher ISO), and the warmth came back, but not so deep that everything went bad-suntan-bronze. And, yes, I could have got this shot with an iPhone, but the adjustment would have had to have been made after I got the shot wrong, then searched around for a fix. Again, there’s no good or bad.
You just have take your own temperature and decide what treatment you need.
ON THE SOFT SIDE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE WORLD’S FIRST MOVIE STUDIO WAS A TARPAPER SHACK ON A TURNTABLE. Dubbed by Thomas Edison’s techies as “The Black Maria” (as ambulances were grimly named back at the time), the structure rotated to take advantage of wherever sunlight was available in the California sky, thus allowing the film crew to extend its daily shooting schedule by more than half in the era of extremely slow film stocks. Eventually artificial light of sufficient strength was developed for the movies, and actors no longer had to brave motion sickness just to rescue fair damsels. So it goes.
More than a century hence, some photographers actually have to be reminded to use natural light, specifically window light, as a better alternative to studio lights or flash units. Certainly anyone who has shot portraits for a while has already learned that window light is softer and more diffuse than anything you can plug in, thus making it far more flattering to faces (as well as forgiving of , er, flaws). It’s also good to remember that it can lend a warming effect to an entire room, on those occasions where the room itself is a kind of still life subject.
Your window light source can be harsher if the sun is arching over the roof of your building toward the window (east to west), so a window that receives light at a right angle from the crossing sun is better, since it’s already been buffered a bit. This also allows you to expose so that the details outside the window (trees, scenery, etc.) aren’t blown out, assuming that you want them to be prominent in the picture. For inside the window, set your initial exposure for the brightest objects inside the room. If they aren’t white-hot, there is less severe contrast between light and dark objects, and the shot looks more balanced.
I like a look that suggests that just enough light has crept into the room to gently illuminate everything in it from front to back. You’ll have to arrive at your own preferred look, deciding how much, if any, of the light you want to “drop off” to drape selective parts of the frame in shadow. Your vision, your choice. Point is, natural light is so wonderfully workable for a variety of looks that, once you start to develop your use of it, you might reach for artificial light less and less.
Turns out, that Edison guy was pretty clever.
SETTING THE CAPTIVES FREE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I’D LIKE TO ERADICATE THE WORD “CAPTURE” FROM MOST PHOTOGRAPHIC CONVERSATIONS. It suggests something stiff or inflexible to me, as if there is only one optimum way to apprehend a moment in an image. Especially in the case of portraits, I don’t think that there can be a single way to render a face, one perfect result that says everything about a person in a scant second of recording. If I didn’t capture something, does that mean my subject “got away” in some way, eluded me, remains hidden? Far from it. I can take thirty exposures of the same face and show you thirty different people. The word has become overused to the point of meaningless.
We are all conditioned to think along certain bias lines to consider a photograph well done or poorly done, and those lines are fairly narrow. We defer to sharpness over softness. We prefer brightly lit to mysteriously dark. We favor naturalistically colored and framed recordings of subjects to interpretations that keep color and composition “codes” fluid, or even reject them outright. It takes a lot of shooting to break out of these strictures, but we need to make this escape if we are to move toward anything approaching a style of our own.
I remember being startled in 1966 when I first saw Jerry Schatzberg’s photograph of Bob Dylan on the cover of the Blonde On Blonde album. How did the editor let this shot through? It’s blurred. It’s a mistake. It doesn’t…..wait, I can’t get that face out of my head. It’s Bob Dylan right now, so right now that he couldn’t be bothered to stand still long enough for a snap. The photo really does (last time I say this) capture something fleeting about the electrical, instantaneous flow of events that Dylan is swept up in. It moves. It breathes. And it’s more significant in view of the fact that there were plenty of pin-sharp frames to choose from in that very same shoot. That means Schatzberg and Dylan picked the softer one on purpose.
There are times when one 10th of a second too slow, one stop too small, is just right for making the magic happen. This is where I would usually mention breaking a few eggs to make an omelette, but for those of you on low-cholesterol diets, let’s just say that n0 rule works all the time, and that there’s more than one way to skin (or capture) a cat.
THE ENNOBLING GOLD
By MICHAEL PERKINS
LIGHT IS THE ULTIMATE MAKE-UP ARTIST, the cosmetic balm that paints warmth, softness, even a kind of forgiveness, or dignity onto the world. Photographers use light in a different way than painters, since a canvas, beginning as a complete blank, allows the dauber to create any kind of light scheme he desires. It’s a very God-like, “let there be light” position the painter finds himself in, whereas the photographer is more or less at light’s mercy, if you will. He has to channel, harness, or manage whatever the situation has provided him with, to wrangle light into an acceptable balance.
No complaints about this, by the way. There’s nothing passive about this process: real decisions are being made, and both painters and photographers are judged by how they temper and combine all the elements they use in their assembly processes. Just because a shooter works with light as he finds it, rather than brushing it into being, doesn’t make him/her any less in charge of the result. It’s just a different way to get there.
Light always has the power to transform objects into, if you will, better versions of themselves. I call it the “ennobling gold”, since I find that the yellow range of light is kindest to a wider range of subjects. Stone or brick, urban crush or rural hush, light produces a calming, charming effect on nearly anything, which is what makes managing light so irresistible to the photographer. He just knows that there is beauty to be extracted when the light is kind. And he can’t wait to grab all he can.
“Light makes photography”, George Eastman famously wrote. “Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But, above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.”
Yeah, what he said.
DARKNESS AS SCULPTOR
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN DAYLIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY, THE DEFAULT ACTION TENDS TO BE TO SHOW EVERYTHING. Shadows in day scenes are a kind of negative reference to the illuminated objects in the frame, but it is those objects, and not the darkness, that defines space. In this way shady areas are a kind of decor, an aid to recognition of scale and depth.
At night, however, the darkness truly plays a defining role, reversing its daylight relationship to light. Dark becomes the stuff that night photos are sculpted from, creating areas that can remain undefined or concealed, giving images a sense of understatement, even mystery. Not only does this create compelling compositions of things that are less than fascinating in the daytime, it allows you to play “light director” to selectively decide how much information is provided to the viewer. In some ways, it is a more pro-active way of making a picture.
I strongly recommend walkabout shoots that span the complete transition from dusk to post-sunset to absolute night. Not only will the quickly changing quality of light force you to make decisions very much in-the-moment, it allows for a vast variance in the visual power of your subjects that is starkly easy to measure. It’s a great practice lab for shooting completely on manual, and, depending on the speed of your chosen lens (and greater ISO flexibility in recent cameras), makes relatively noise -free, stable handheld shots possible that were unthinkable just a few years ago. One British writer I follow recently remarked, concerning ISO, that “1600 is the new 400”, and he’s very nearly right.
So wander around in the dark. The variable results force you to shoot a lot, rethink a lot, and experiment a lot. Even one evening can accelerate your learning curve by weeks. And when darkness is the primary sculptor of a shot, lovely things (wait for the bad pun) can come to light (sorry).
SOFT EDGES, HARD TRUTHS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHATEVER MARVELS CURRENT TECHNOLOGY ALLOW US TO ACHIEVE IN PHOTOGRAPHY, there is one thing that it can never, ever afford us: the ability to be “present at the creation”, actively engaged at the dawn of an art in which nearly all of its practitioners are doing something fundamental for the very first time. The nineteenth century now shines forth as the most open, experimental and instinctive period within all of photography, peopled with pioneers who achieved things because there was no tradition to discourage them, mapping out the first roads that are now our well-worn highways. It is an amazing, matchless time of magic, risk, and invention.
Much of it was largely mechanical in nature, with the 1800’s marked by rapidly changing technical means for making images, for finding faster recording media and sharper lenses. The true thrill of early photography comes, however, from those who conjured ways of seeing and interpreting the world, rather than merely making a record of it. In some ways, creating a camera
facile enough to fix portraits on glass was easy. compared with the evolving philosophy of how to portray a person, what part of the subject to capture within the frame. And it was in this latter wizardry that Julia Margaret Cameron entered the pantheon of genuine genius.
Born to courtly British comfort in India in 1815, Cameron, largely a hobbyist, was one of the first photographers to move beyond the rigid, lifeless portraits of the era to generate works of investigation into the human spirit. She was technically bound by the same long exposures that made sitting for a picture such torture at the time, but, somehow, even though she endlessly posed, cajoled, and even bullied her subjects into position, she nonetheless achieved an intimacy in her work that the finest studio pros of the early 19th century could not approximate. Far from being put off by the softness that resulted from long exposures, Cameron embraced it, imbuing her shots with a gauzy, ethereal quality, a human look that made most other portraits look like staged lies.
In many cases, Julia Margaret Cameron’s eye has become the eye of history, since many who sat for her, like Charles Darwin, seldom or ever sat again for anyone else, making her view of their greatness the official view. And while she only practiced her craft for a scant fifteen years, no one who hopes to illuminate a personality in a photographic frame can be free of her heavenly mix of soft edges and hard truths.
Extra Credit: for more samples of JMC’s work, take this link to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cameron exhibition page: