By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS PHOTOGRAPHERS, WE PROVIDE THE PROGRAM WHICH CAMERAS ARE INSTRUCTED TO PERFORM. The actual box itself, like many other tools, is really a dumb thing, fueled not by its own ideas but instructed to carry out the whims of its owner. The camera thus does not really “see”, but merely follows the direction of those who can.
If they can.
The frustrating part of photography’s learning curve is that, over time, we all come to think of our most enlightened ideas as, well, primitive. The things we regard as obvious in our present incarnation as picture-makers were once invisible to us. And it follows that our present blind spots may, in a future version of ourselves, be the source of our greatest accuity. We are thus learning photography on several planes. There is the merely technical level, in which the mastery of aperture and focus is the primary mission. Then there is learning to see, as we begin to recognize patterns, themes or compositions. Finally there is the ability to evaluate what we see, to place different emphases on things depending on how we ourselves have evolved. This transference can take a pictorial element from the status of an object to that of a subject. We notice a thing differently and thus we photograph it differently.
I find myself in the process of such a shift at the time of this writing, mostly because I have recently made new friends within the birdwatching community, mostly due to my wife’s passion for the hobby. Now, of course, I have taken my share of bird photos over a lifetime, but most of them could be classified as opportunistic accidents (one landed next to where I was sitting) or as props within a composition, something to add scale, balance or flavor to, let’s say a landscape. That is to say that birds, for me, have been objects in my pictures, not, for the most part, subjects. Lately, however, I can see a subtle shift in my own prioritization of them.
Part of my pedestrian attitude toward them is borne of my own technical limits, as I have never owned the kind of superzooms that are required to make a detailed study of them. If I can’t afford to bring them into close view and sharp detail, it’s just easier to represent them as dots, flecks or shadows, as you see in the image at left. This, in turn, connects to my admittedly jaundiced view of telephoto images in general, since I think the gear required to capture them invites as many problems as it solves. I prefer prime lenses for their simplicity, clarity, efficiency of light use and, let’s face it, affordability. I realize now that all those biases are under review: I am, for better or worse, revising how I see the natural world, or, more specifically, the living things within it. Much of this is thanks to Marian, who sees the earth as a kind of game preserve with we bipeds charged with its responsible curation. The influence of her good example has been amplified further by my rage against the corporate titans who would lay waste to the last unicorn if it lined their pockets, and the fact that, at this juncture, their side seems to have the upper hand.
And so as both a photographer and a person, I can’t really relegate birds, or bison, or duck-billed platypuses to the background of my work any more. I may never become a great nature photographer, but that’s not the point. Fact is, the journey involved in sharpening our eye is always a staircase. Each step is important, but the upward journey itself is the main thing. Any photographer lucky enough to have his/her seeing powers challenged, even changed, is blessed indeed.
I know this is true. A little bird told me.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOONER OR LATER, EVERY PHOTOGRAPHER, sifting through subject matter that is largely invisible to passersby, will elicit the question, “what are you looking at?” I seldom have a good answer for such queries, which usually come when I’m crawling on the ground, squinting at the sky, or otherwise peering at, well, you name it. The reason I tend to reply “oh, nothing” is that the answer won’t make sense to anyone else anyway. I mean, why am I staring at random pile of roadside rocks? Why do I find a rusty gate hinge fascinating at the moment? It’s actually easier to be assumed by people in the area to be the town idiot, because, the faster people write me off as mad, the sooner I can get back to what I’m doing, which is trying to make a picture. The process is seldom logical and always appears odd from the outside.
Hell, it appears odd from the inside. Like, of my head.
In one such instance, people see me staring at leaves. Dead or dying leaves. Wet ones. Half rotted ones. Leaves that are placed first on this side, then on that one, then directly in light, then cloaked in shadow. My interest in them isn’t botanical, since I often know next to nothing of the objects I’m photographing (not scientifically, anyway), and so I can’t even invent some great story about why I have chosen one over the other. They are just abstract texture to me, texture that almost always varies wildly from leaf to leaf. If I see anything symbolic at all in them, I probably see the human hand, specifically the aging human hand. In recent years I’ve taken a number of images of my ninety-year-old father’s hands, which are, at this point in his life, almost as telling about his history as the lines on his face. In turn, I began to study my own hands, which are twenty-three years behind his, but well on the path toward “wizened” status. It was at some point that leaves, which sport their own age spots, wrinkles, scars and discolorations, starting to talk a bit louder to me.
Over the past several years, my Phytomorphology series (which merely takes its name from the term for the study of plants’ external structures) has sported no other captions instead of randomly assigned numbers, a signal that, even though the collected pictures might look like part of a larger study, they are no such thing. And while I could have called them “big leaf”, “green leaf” or “dead leaf”, the arcane fakery of pretending I’m on some kind of academic mission amuses me, so….Phytomorphology 23, Phytomorphology 67, and so forth. So now we return to the sight of me randomly scanning the ground (with no particular purpose in mind), an activity that makes outsiders ask what I’m looking at. Now, I could improvise a great little comment about the veinous textures or the play of light on irregular surfaces or any other number of statements that would make me sound more like a “real” photographer, but, in truth, the leaves are merely a whim, perhaps more so than any other subject I’ve ever shot. I keep coming back to a quote from comedian Lenny Bruce, who was asked by a reporter why he chose this phrase or that structure for a given monologue. His answer: I just do it, that’s all.
In photography, as in any other form of personal expression, sometimes a thing just is, and there’s no point in being fussy about the why of it. I’m not clever enough to have a formalized reason for everything I shoot. Sometimes you just know, and you go. One more anecdote to close out: a farmer is working with his herd of cattle near the edge of a country road. Some city slicker who’s fascinated by this slows his car, asking, “excuse me, are those Guernseys or Herefords?”. “Heck”, says the farmer, “I just call ’em moo-cows.”
Maybe that’s my answer, the next time someone catches me in a meadow looking at leaves. “Gee, I guess I got some wrong information. They told me there were moo-cows around here…”
THE SPIRITUALIST POET WILLIAM BLAKE FAMOUSLY EXPRESSED HIS DESIRE to explore life in its smallest detail, to, as he put it in his poem Auguries of Innocence, “see the world in a grand of sand / and a heaven in a wild flower / hold infinity in the palm of your hand/ and eternity in an hour”. It’s the kind of sentiment that makes me believe he might have made a great photographer.
It’s unlikely that Blake, who was also a wonderfully gifted graphic artist and who died in 1827, ever held a camera in his hand, but from the first generation of photographers there was a decidedly Blakeian urge to explore the world at the most intimate levels, engineering lenses that allowed maximum magnification and resolution of the vast stories lingering right under our noses. Today, as never before, macro photography is finally within the technical and financial reach of the many, allowing spaces that barely comprise inches to reveal the complexities that we stroll past without regard on a daily basis. And just as all of photography is about extracting pieces of reality from the larger flow of time, so macro is about drawing things out of their original settings, to dramatize the elegance of design and pattern, to create a separate stillness. That certainly is what appeals to me about shooting in the small world….the ability to take things so far out of their regular context that we are forced to consider them as if we were encountering them for the first time.
To be sure, close-up work comes with its own set of unique technical challenges, but what makes it worthwhile is its ability to deliver the shock of the new, to depict the eternities residing within Blake’s grain of sand. For many of us, this process of discovery reaches its fullest expression in floral or botanical subjects, since magnifying their contours is almost like a crash course in geometry or architecture. Petals, seeds, pistils, stamens, leaves…..all are rotating in their own incredible orbits as if they were bit players in Fantasia, fantastic ballets in which size (or rather the transformation of scales and sizes) really does matter. In terms of technique, even a practiced photographer can be frustrated by the special demands raised by magnification. Certainly light and focal relationships work differently, as well as stabilization of the image. Predictably, every error of movement or lens flaw is utterly exposed once everything is increased in size, resulting in a higher percentage of failed shots and near misses. Still, one’s first plunge into macro is like Alice’s initial entry into a realm where everyday objects magically shrink and expand without warning.
Blake, like all artists, understood that art transforms and re-translates all experience, re-defines how we view everything, allows us to show all ranges of life from dark to light, remarking in Auguries that “man was made for Joy & Woe / and when this we rightly know / thro the World we safely go” Photography gets the big things right…. by paying attention to the worlds within worlds. It really is a game of inches, sometimes atoms.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE LONGER YOU’RE INVOLVED IN PHOTOGRAPHY, the greater chance there is that, at some point, you’ll at least wonder if a telephoto lens should be in your arsenal of gear. As with any other lens, I believe that, over time, the need for a zoom will become fairly obvious….either obviously needed or obviously superfluous. That is, your shooting will drive your technical needs and dictate what you deem as essential equipment.
That means not buying any lens, especially a zoom, before you find yourself in repeated situations where it might have made the difference in your work. The reason I deliberately state what should be a “duh”-type truth is that there are still some photographers who gear up with everything under the sun before they demonstrate their strengths or desires by the kind of images they pursue. This means that you don’t buy lenses and then try to find a use for them. Working that way all but guarantees that the things you never evolved a genuine need for wind up consigned to the top of the hall closet or on a yard sale table.
So let’s go back to the example of telephotos. It’s completely possible that your particular work will never indicate that you need one. I can cite many amazing photographers that seldom, if ever, use them. I myself have only one modest 55-300mm zoom, which I can safely is in use once, maybe twice a year. And that’s a net increase in its use, due to the fact that I now spend increasingly more time accompanying my wife on her birdwatching expeditions. Even at that, I seldom use the things for actually photographing birds. My eye is far too untrained to locate them in most cases, and I am just as content to use the 300mm for landscapes, macros and other wildlife. Were I bitten as hard by birding bug (bug?) as Marian, I may already have ponied up the dough for a more powerful version of what I use. But bitten I am not, and so I am stuck with my original biases against zooms…..that is, that they are generally too slow, too dark, too poor at color rendition, and supremely aggravating to focus on the fly. Am I grossly over-generalizing? Of course. But you judge these things on your own results (indifferent) and your own limits (considerable).
In the view you see here, I am almost at the extreme limit of my 300’s usefulness, with my bullfrog quarry about thirty yards away, making him a medium-large speck in the viewfinder even when I’m fully zoomed out. This means that locking auto-focus on him will be strictly hit-or-miss, necessitating a shoot-check-shoot-check cycle in an effort to catch the toad before he can get bored and blow the scene. And that’s assuming that I can get auto-focus to lock at all. In many cases, going manual will keep me from issuing a verbal blast of mostly blasphemous bile in getting the shot, but even that is no guarantee when working hand-held. Are we having fun yet? My point is that, at least for me (notice the italics), zooms trade access for precision and speed. Sometimes, as in the marginally lucky result you see here, the trade-off is worthwhile. Other times….
So, to my earlier point. I could trade up to a more powerful zoom, if I were to demonstrate a need for one by the typical work I produce….. and if I decide to give up food and shelter to finance the thing. Again, the idea is….let what and how you shoot dictate what you’ll buy to shoot with. From where I stand, one frog a year still doesn’t scream ‘buy more glass”. As always, what makes some of us grin makes others of us grimace. And vice versa.
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.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT NEVER FAILS. You go to the grocery store for a carton of milk and come back with salsa, canned pineapple and half a pound of bologna. You may not have even known you “needed” the additional items, but, son of a gun, that extra large salsa is on sale. And, just like that, a quick stop becomes a shopping trip.
Photography is sort of like that.
You head out with specific objectives in mind, not thinking that fate has other plans, and will gently incline you in their direction. “Gentle”…like a freight train. In the case of a recent bird walk, my photographic plan “A” may seem odd to the average observer, in that it was to walk around with birders and not take any bird photos.
In my defense, I was already halfway through an extended birding weekend, accompanied by my wife and other serious spotters in a variety of southern Arizona locales. Moreover, even though I possess zero talent and little inclination in the study of all things airborne, I had nonetheless nailed a few easy exposures of very tame birds in the habit of eating very slowly on feeders near very large throngs of people…..basically zoo shooting with better singing. But the morning in question was different. Spotting birds in the wild is for grown-ups, and my infantile attention span is often drawn off center by the woods or canyon or, in this case, woodsy canyon that houses the various winged wonders. The spotters can spend hours arguing over the nomenclature of whatever they’ve flushed out of the foliage. For me, the foliage is why I came.
Thus, on this morning, I was sporting a 24mm wide angle to highlight the contours and curves of Ramsey Canyon, although I also had shoved my 300mm zoom inside a fanny pack as an act of pure superstition. Thus, the appropriate division of labor for the outing was established: Bird People watch birds. Tree Hugger tags along and shoots trees. Then we came upon a small footbridge surrounded by a small pack of mule deer, feeding at a level of relaxation that can only occur when you become accustomed to bipeds in goofy hats routinely traipsing through your backyard. One of the Bird People, knowing a camera nut was in their midst, gave me a heads-up. A desperate minute of crouching, zipping, fumbling and mild cursing later, I had managed to attach the 300, worrying all the time that something or someone would spook the group.
After that fear was allayed by the deer’s total state of chill, however, I was overcome by a new emotion, something I can only characterize as gratitude. I have had many encounters with deer in the wild over the years, but in each case I had only had scant seconds to try to capture anything. Here, suddenly, I was presented with a group so docile that I could walk to within twenty feet of them and have the most precious gift, the gift of time, with which to plan shots. The female seen here was intent on staying in clear sunlight next to a tree, while her male companions were gamboling inand out of the dappled shade at too great a speed for accurate metering, so, yeah, I went the easier route.
The point is that the situation allowed me to shoot twenty or more frames and have time in between to make an assessment as to what might succeed. It was an astounding luxury, a rarity among rarities, and my photos became my prayer of thanks.
Come for the forest, stay for the deer.
Or: come for the milk, stay for the salsa, pineapple, and bologna.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN PHOTOGRAPHY, WE OFTEN HAVE THE OPPORTUNITY TO ADMIRE THINGS THAT ARE, STRICTLY SPEAKING, beyond our capabilities. The world is rife with people who master exposure, composition, editing and conceptualization in ways which make us gasp in a mixture of awe and envy. Sometimes, we are so amazed by artists outside our own area of expertise that we emulate their passion and, in doing so, completely remake our own art. Other times, we just glimpse their greatness like a kid peeking inside the tent flap at the circus. We know that something marvelous is going on in there. We also sense that we are not a part of it.
That’s pretty much been my attitude toward landscape work.
Much of it leaves me impressed. Some of it leaves me breathless. All of it leaves me puzzled, since I know that I am missing a part of whatever mystical “something” it is that allows others to capture majesty and wonder in the natural world, their images looking “created” my own looking merely “snapped”.
It’s not the same with urban settings, or with anything that bears the mark of human creativity. I can instinctually find a story or a sweet point of focus in a building, a public square, a cathedral. I can sense the throb of humanity in these places and I can suggest it in pictures. But put me in front of a broad canvas of scenery and I struggle to carve out a coherent composition. What to include? What to cut? What light is best? And what makes this tree more pictorially essential than the other 3,000 I will encounter today?
The masters of the landscape world are magicians to me, crafty wizards who can charm the dense forest into some evocative choreography, summoning shadows and light into delicate interplay in a way that is direct, dramatic. I occasionally score out in the woods, but my failure rate is much higher, and the distance between what I see and what I can deliver much greater. Oddly, it was the work of scenic photographers, not street shooters or journalists, that originally conveyed the excitement of being a photographer to me, although I quickly devolved to portraits, abstractions, 3D, hell, anything to get me back to town, away from all that scary flora and fauna.
Medium or bite-sized natural subjects do better for me than vast vistas, and macro work, with its study of the very structures and patterns of organic things works even better. But I forever harbor a dream of freezing a forest in time in a way that stuns with its serene stillness and simple dignity. I have to keep putting myself out there, hoping that I can bridge the gap between envy and awareness.
Maybe I’ll start at the city park. I hear they have trees there….
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE WAS A BRIEF MOMENT, WHEN PHOTOGRAPHY WAS A NOVELTY, when it was thought to be in some kind of winner-take-all death match with painting. That fake war lasted but a moment, and the two arts have fed (and fed upon) each other to varying degrees ever since. Both painting and photography have passed through phases where they were consciously or unconsciously emulating each other, and I dare say that all photographers have at least a few painter’s genes in their DNA. The two traditions just have too much to offer to live apart.
One of my favorite examples of “light sculpting”, the artistic manipulation of illumination for maximum mood, came to me not from a photographer, but from one of the finest illustrators of the early twentieth century. Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966) began his career as a painter/illustrator for fanciful fiction from Mother Goose to The Arabian Nights. Then, as color processes for periodicals became more sophisticated after 1900, he seamlessly morphed into one of the era’s premier magazine artists, working mostly for ad agencies, and most famously for his series of magnificently warm light fantasies for Edison Mazda light bulbs.
Parrish’s Mazda ads are dazzling arrangements of pastel blues, golden earth tones, dusky oranges, and hot yellows, all punched up to their most electrically fantastic limits. Years before photographers began to write about “golden hours” as the prime source of natural light, Parrish was showing us what nature seldom could, somehow making his inventions seem a genuine part of that nature. The stuff is mesmerizing. See more of his best at: http://www.parrish.artpassions.net/
During a recent trip to the high walking paths that crown Griffith Park in Los Angeles, I saw the trees and hills, at near sunset, form the perfect radiated glow of one of Parrish’s dusks. Timing was crucial: I was almost too late to catch the full effect, as shadows were lengthening and the overhanging tree near my cliffside lookout were beginning to get too shadowy. I hoped tha,t by stepping back just beyond the effective range of my on-board flash, I could fill in the front of the fence, allowing the light to decay and darken as it went back toward the tree. Too close and it would be a total blowout. Too far back, and everything near at hand would be too dark to complement the color of the sky and the hills.
After a few quick adjustments, I had popped enough color back into the foreground to make a nice authentic fake. For a moment, I was on one of Parrish’s mountain vistas, lacking only the goddesses and vestal virgins to make the scene complete. You’d think that, this close to Hollywood, you could get Central Casting to send over a few extras. In togas.
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
- Happy Mother’s Day!! (dannapycher.wordpress.com)