By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHS STRIVE TO GIVE DIRECT TESTIMONY to life’s key moments, to minimize the distance between event and reporter. The most arresting photographs benefit from this straight line-of-sight from what we witness to how we record it. Other times, however, we are forced to depict things indirectly, making pictures not of things, but of the impact of those things.
One example of this occurs in wartime. It’s impossible, in many cases, to directly make an image of all those who are lost in a battle, but many eloquent photographs have been made of the way those dead are remembered, by photographing lists of names inscribed on a memorial, or by capturing a ritual during which those names are recited. Since society records the damage of wars or disasters in a variety of clerical or statistical ways, such tabulations, for photographers, stand in visually for the actual event.
Our latest global “war”, in which even the immediate families of the dead are barred from witnessing their loved ones’ final moments, a time in which thousands of us seem to just vaporize into abstraction, has made a new, horrific addition to a very old instrument of death’s grammar: the newspaper obituary. In recent months, the virus has begun to be specifically listed as a cause of death in the stately columns of the New York Times, a revision which signals the importance of change in how slowly the Old Gray Lady adjusts to it. There now, on the page, along with the Parkinson’s diseases and the cancers and the sanitized descriptions of those who “passed peacefully” are the dread new words, now officially inducted into the vocabulary of grief.
And so, in the age of COVID-19, our cameras are stalled at arm’s length, unable to be true eyewitnesses, forced, by circumstances, to be eyewitnesses, once removed. We make pictures of pictures, images of lists, views of rosters.
It’s not enough. But for now, it will have to do.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MORE INK HAS BEEN POURED OUT about Henri Cartier-Bresson’s notion of “the decisive moment” than perhaps any other chunk of photographic philosophy ever hashed out between honest brokers. HCB’s assertion was, essentially, that there is a single, ideal instant in which a picture of something will be, like an apple, perfect for the plucking. Miss that moment, and all is lost.
While some applaud this theory as holy scripture, others dismiss it with a vulgar reference to bovine by-products. All well and good. Everyone needs to evolve a belief system that drives their personal photographic vision. The important thing is to evolve something.
Personally, while I don’t believe there is only a single moment that will make an image immortal, I also don’t think that just any moment you choose to freeze an event is as good as every other moment. Conditions, timing and decisions matter in the making of a picture, and, when they intersect, the magic happens.
So the number of “decisive moments” for an event, for me, would number about three. Think of them as acts in a play, each act performing a distinct element in a dramatic story. Act One shows things that are about to happen: a nearly blooming blossom: the minutes before street lights are turned on for the evening. Act Two depicts something that is in the process of occurring: candles on a cake being blown out: a pistol shot. And Act Three shows where things have now completed. A concert crowd leaves the theatre: a dog snoozes after a long day of play.
The image seen here can potentially be an example of any of the three acts. Are the backstage props being spread out in anticipation of a show? Is the performance, unseen from this angle, being given right now? Or have the stage hands already begun to strike the tents and gather everything up before moving the players on to the next town? All three interpretations are of specific places in time. And all can be “decisive moments” when the right bond between photographer and viewer is established.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE INTERNET SCREECHED ITSELF HOARSE in 2016 when the Nobel Prize committee announced its intention to award one of its coveted awards for Literature to Bob Dylan, the first popular songwriter so honored. There were acrimonious screeds on both sides of the issue, as hands were wrung and garments were rent over whether Mr. D. was a poet or just a scribbler of post-beat pap. My initial reactions ranged from “really?” to, well, “really???“. But then I figured that, far from stretching the idea of “literature” too far, the Nobel gang hadn’t taken it far enough.
That is to say, it’s way past time for photographers to be invited onto the Nobel podium. As creators of visual literature.
Founded as an attempt by Alfred Nobel to expiate his guilt for having invented dynamite, the awards were designed to reward those whose work enriched or enlivened the human condition in the areas of chemistry, economics, physics, physiology/medicine, peace, and, yes, literature. As compared to the Pulitzer prize, which confers news value on both the printed word and photographic images, and is awarded for a singular piece of work within a single year, the Nobels are awarded for a body of work. With that standard in mind, it would actually be easier to judge the value of a photographer over a lifetime, versus the potential for a lucky or instinctual snap to be taken in the recording of a brief moment. But photography is a visual art, and a young one at that, and, even though no one still argues against its importance or impact, it is a sticky wicket to compel the powers that be to confer the “L-word” upon it.
Considering that the slight jump from literary poetry (Seamus Haney) to commercial song lyrics (Dylan) nearly caused Nobel critics to hemorrhage, proposing that photographs could also meet the definition of literature must sound, to some, like reciting dirty limericks during High Mass. Further, word “originalists” will point to the fact that literature is strictly defined as a written work of permanence. And yet it’s the permanence part that matters. Pictures have, in fact, changed arguments, minds and history, just as paintings have. And, if literature is that art which endures, something which defines the human experience, then a photograph is certainly as big an influence upon culture as a play or novel. A document is a document.
In accepting his Nobel prize, author John Steinbeck declared, “the writer is delegated to declare and celebrate man’s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit..for gallantry in defeat…for courage, compassion, and love.” Now go from the general to the specific, considering Steinbeck’s amazing chronicle of the Oakie odyssey of the 1930’s, The Grapes Of Wrath. As a contrast, how does Dorathea Lange’s picture Migrant Mother, with its graphic depiction of the dust bowl era’s desperation and despair, have any less impact than Steinbeck’s glowing account of the Joad family’s trek to California? In my estimation, both works magnify and certify what it means to stand tall in the blowing gale of ill fortune. And that is a literary idea.
Migrant Mother, like Grapes, is no mere “one-off”, but a small part of an enormous oeuvre, a vast portfolio filled with eloquent testimonies that delineate humanity. The Nobel has slowly begun to mature with the awarding of Bob Dylan’s literature award. Now it’s time to regard the visual arts as part of that larger, and widening discussion.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF YOU REGULARLY POST IMAGES TO PHOTO SHARING SITES, you will no doubt have come upon groups or albums labeled S.O.O.C., or Straight Out Of The Camera, pictures that purport to have transitioned seamlessly from shutter click to social post without being further touched by human hands. The fact that such a designation even exists says something about how we see the creative process, or what we deem as “pure” about it.
The raw math of photography dictates that only a micro-percentage of your total work will actually come fully formed from your camera, emerging, as Athena did, intact from the forehead of Zeus. Rather, the majority of what we shoot is re-shot, re-thought, shaped, edited, and re-combined before we put a gold frame around it, which only makes sense. Photography is a process, not just a recording product. We grow into a better understanding of our best shots no less than our worst ones. That means that clinging to “straight out of the camera” as some kind of badge of excellence or ideal is counter-intuitive to the idea of photography as an organic art.
More simply, any so-called “perfect” pictures we create in the moment are a mixture of luck as well as talent, of chance as well as design. To slap a collective S.O.O.C. label on all such fortunate convergences of cosmic fortune is to think of that “flawlessness” as an end unto itself. Does the fact that you didn’t further mold an image after shooting it render it better, more authentic somehow, than one which was later manipulated or massaged? What gets the gold star, the best complete realization of a picture, regardless of the number of intermediate steps, or the bragging rights associated with blind luck? Case in point: in the above image, I did, indeed, get nearly everything I wanted out of the picture, but it was also the 15th frame I shot of the subject before I was even partly satisfied, so how “straight out” is that??
And what of the photographs that are less than “perfect” (according to whom?) from a technical standpoint? Can’t an underexposed or ill-focused shot contain real impact? Aren’t there a number of “balanced” exposures that are also as dull as dishwater? Moreover, can’t a shot be improved in its power after being re-interpreted in processing? The straight-out-of-the-camera designation is either meaningless, or sends completely the wrong message. Creativity seldom moves in a straight line, and almost never comes fully realized in its first form. Photography’s aim should never be to aim for an easy lay-up from mid-court, and labels that suggest that lucky is the same as eloquent do the art a disservice.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MOST YEAR-END ROUND-UP LISTS, from rosters of hot-selling New York Times books to summaries of the most binge-worthy tv titles, tend, in our marketing-based society, to be “best-of’s”, rankings of what’s hot and what (since it didn’t make the list) is not. I’m certainly not immune to these sales-skewed tabulations, but, in strictly artistic terms, there should also be lists that are more like “most representative of” rather than “best”.
There’s a very human reason for this distinction. Creative people are often fonder of the their personal also-rans than their personal bests. We cherish the effort, as much as, if not more than, the race results. He who came in first and he who gave it the best go are often two different people (or two different works of art), and our hearts go out (especially in the case of our own work) to the stuff that shows our growth rather than our success.
And that’s where I find my head at the end of this photographic year.
Up top of the screen, starting today, there’s a tab for a new gallery page called Fifteen for 15. Now, quickly, guess how many pictures there are in it. Then guess what year they came from. Yeah, I’m really that dull. The images therein aren’t necessarily my technical best, perhaps not even the pictures that work the best for you as an audience. But they do comprise a pretty fair sampling of every direction in which I was attempting to stretch during the year, and maybe that’s more important than a mere brag-sheet of home runs.
I used to think my goal was to develop a style that didn’t, ha ha, look like a style (oh, these artists!) . Now, I actually want to try to create a chronicle of everywhere that I stepped outside my comfort zone, since that’s where both the spectacular wins and the astounding misses reside. And if I can finish out a given calendar year and point to at least a baker’s dozen of shots that show me at least trying to color outside the lines, I’ll call that year a success. With lists, “Best-Of’s” are great for the ego. However, “Representative-Of’s” may be better for the soul.
So, that happened.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
VISITORS TO THE FACTORY HEADQUARTERS OF BEN & JERRY’S ICE CREAM in Stowe, Vermont, upon completing the standard tour of the works, are encouraged to climb a small hill out back of the building to view the company’s Dead Flavor’s Graveyard, an actual cemetery, complete with elegantly epitaphed tombstones and dedicated to such failed B&J varietals as Turtle Soup, Fossil Fuel, White Russian and Sweet Potato Pie. It’s a humorous way to point out that, even for talented startups, there’s no such thing as a direct shot up the mountain of fame. We duck. We detour. We change direction. It’s a process, not a product.
Photography is, in this way (and in no other way that I can think of) much like ice cream.
As we clear the 500 mark on posts for The Normal Eye, I want to (a) profoundly thank all those who have joined us on the journey, and (b) restate that, as our sub-head reads, it really is about a journey, rather than a destination. This small-town newspaper began because I had met so many people over the years who had become suspicious of their camera’s true intentions. Sure, they admitted, the automodes do pretty great on many pictures, but what if I actually want some say in the process? Can I be an active agent in the making of my own pictures?
Now, these weren’t people who wanted to purchase $10,000 worth of gear, sell their houses, abandon their children, and become photo gypsies for NatGeo. These were simply people whose photographic curiosity had finally got the better of them. What would happen, they asked, if I were to, all by myself, make one little extra choice, independent of the camera’s superbrain, before the shutter snapped? And what if I made two? Or three? Other questions followed. What is seeing? How do you learn to value your own vision? And what tasks from the era of film still apply as solid principles in the digital age?
The Normal Eye has spent the last four years trying to ask those questions, not from a top-down, “here is how to do it” approach, since so many of these solutions must be privately arrived at. This is not, and will never be, a technical tutorial. I reflect on what thoughts went into a particular problem, and how I personally decided to try to solve it. The results, as are all my words, are up for debate.
It’s humbling to remember that, in photography, there is always more than one path to paradise. And when I find myself being crushed under the weight of my own Dead Flavor Graveyard, I take heart in those moments when your feedback has made a difference in my motivations, or methods, or both. Recently, I received what I still cherish as one of the best comments over the entire run, with one gentleman proclaiming:
I’m not a fan of words, but the ones in this article are in a tolerable sequence.
Hey, that’s enough to hold me for another 500, and I hope you’ll be along for the ride.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I’VE BEEN DRENCHED IN A VIRTUAL TIDAL WAVE over the last few days, visiting one of those torrential storms of discontent that can only exist on the internet, churning furiously, forever, no resolution, no winner. I don’t know when it began; I only know that, six months, a year, or a decade from now, if I return for more, the storm will still be raging, the two forces inexhaustible in their contempt for each other.
In one corner will be the photographers who believe that equipment has no determination in whether you make great pictures. In the other corner will be those who believe that you absolutely need good gear to make good images. The invective hurled by each combatant at the other is more virulent than venom, more everlasting than a family feud, more primal than the struggle between good and evil.
If you dig bloodsport, enter the maelstrom at the shallow end by Googling phrases like “Leicas are not the greatest cameras” or “your camera doesn’t matter” and then jump behind a barricade. Do more provocative searches like “hipsters are ruining photography” or “don’t think, just shoot” at your peril.
As with many other truth quests in photography, this one shows strong evidence for both of the waves in the surge. Certainly a great piece of equipment cannot confer its greatness upon you, or your work. And, from the other side, sometimes a camera’s limitations places limits, or at least austere challenges, upon even superbly talented people. And, so, to my mind, there is a third, more consistently true wave: sometimes there is a magic that makes it to the final frame that is mysterious, in that you don’t know how much of the picture you took, how much the camera took, or just how ready the cosmos was to serve that picture up to you. See image above, which I can no longer take either credit or blame for.
Yeah, that’s a little Zen high priest in tone, but look over your own work, especially things you did five or more years ago, where it’s now difficult to recall the exact circumstances of the success of a given image. Pull out the pictures that could be correctly captioned “I don’t know how I got that shot”, “I guess I just went for broke”, or “don’t ask me why that worked out..” There will be more pictures that fall between the extremes, that are neither “thank God I had my cool camera” nor “thank God I was able to make that image despite my limited gear.” That middle ground is the place where miracles thrive, or die on the vine. That strange intersection of truth , far beyond the lands of my-side/your-side heat, is where lies the real light.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY, IF IT TRULY IS AN ART (and I’m assuming you believe it is), can never get to a place where it’s “done”. There is no Finished, there ain’t no Clock Out, and there shouldn’t be any Good Enough. There is only where you are and the measurable distance between there and where you want to be. And, once you get there, the chains get moved down the field to the next first down, and the whole drill starts over again.
That means that, as photographers, we are always just about to find ourselves uncomfortable, or need to try to make ourselves that way. Standing still equals stale, which, in turn, equals “why bother?” Sure, the first step toward a new plateau always feels like walking off a cliff, but it needs to, if we’re to improve. If your work feels like something you’ve done before, chances are it is. And if a new assignment or challenge doesn’t come from outside yourself, then you’ve got to do something to put the risk back in the process.
You can write your own prescription. Shoot all day with a limited camera. Do everything in b&w. Make yourself compose shots that are the dead opposite of what you believe looks “right”. Use the “wrong” lens for the assignment at hand. Force yourself to do an entire day’s work in the same aperture, shutter speed, or white balance. Just throw some kind of monkey wrench into your routine, before the routine becomes the regular rhythm (spelled “rut”) of your work. The words comfort and create don’t fit comfortably in the same sentence. Be okay with that.
We can’t always count on crazed bosses, tight deadlines or visionary mentors to nudge us toward the next best version of ourselves. Learn how to kick yourself in the butt and you’ll always be in problem-solving mode. That means more mistakes, which in turn means a speedier learning curve. You never learn anything repeating your past successes, so don’t curl up next to them like some comfortable chair. Put it all out there. Make the imperfect day work for you, and pray that there’s another one waiting after that.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YEARS OF WRITING DAILY HUMOR MATERIAL FOR OTHERS IN THE RADIO RACKET taught me that comedians fall into two general camps: those who say funny things and those who say things funny. Depending on how you rate writing, your own independence, or even your career longevity, you may opt to be in the first group, flawlessly executing pre-written material, or the second, where the manner in which you put things across allows you to get laughs reading the phone book.
I make this distinction between technique (the gag reciter) and style (the ability to imbue anything with comedy) because photographers must face the exact same choices. Technique helps us deliver the goods with technical precision, to master steps and procedures to correctly execute, say, a time exposure. Style is the ability to stamp our vision on nearly anything we see; it’s not about technical mastery, but internal development. Two different paths. Very different approaches to making pictures.
Obviously, great shooters can’t put their foot exclusively in either camp. Without technique, your work has no level standards or parameters. Lighting, exposure, composition….they all require skills that are as basic as a driver’s-ed class. However, if you merely learn how to do stuff, without having a guiding principle of how to harness those skills, your work will be devoid of a certain soul. Adept but not adorable. This is a trap I frequently find myself falling into, as my shots are a little technique heavy. Result: images that are scientifically sound but maybe a trifle soul-starved. Yeah, I could make this picture, but why did I?
On the style side, of course, you need fancy, whimsy, guts, and, yes, guesswork to produce a masterpiece. However, with an overabundance of unchanneled creativity, your work can become chaotic. Your narrative ability may not be up to the speed of your “vision”, or you may simply lack the wizardry to capture what your eye is seeing. Photographers are, more than anything else, storytellers. If they fail in either grammar or imagination, the whole thing is noise.
Like comics, photographers are both technicians and artists. Even the most seasoned among us needs a touch o’ the geek and a touch of the poet. Anything else is low comedy.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE USED TO BE A CARTOON THAT SHOWED A MAN WITH A LITERAL HOLE IN HIS HEAD, described by the caption as being “open-minded”, as if that were a negative, rather than a positive, quality. Regardless of what this says of the popular notion regarding the intellectually flexible among us, it actually reminds me that the best approach to some of the best photography in the world can be, as near as possible, no approach at all.
Okay, everyone sit back down. The old village crank isn’t proposing that one should not be mindful, or operate from a plan, when tackling a photo shoot. Merely pointing out that, if you’re honest, you can certainly point to pictures that you’ve over-thought to the point of sterility, draining the results of anything reflexive, impulsive, or instinctual. Moreover, it’s all too easy to map out a procedure for what you hope to do, then fall into desperate love with said procedure for its own sake. My, what a lovely, lovely little blueprint. Let’s not deviate from it an inch.
This little comic book of mine doesn’t have but a few meager themes, but one of them is that the best pictures land on your nose like an errant butterfly while you’re busy planning something very different. You may not select from your favorite phrase for this process, including Dumb Luck, Serendipity, Being At One With Your Chakras, or Accidentally Stepping In Roses. Point is, there are pictures to be extracted everywhere, not just where you feel like looking. Being open-minded doesn’t mean you have a hole in the head.
One really cheap and easy way to remind yourself of this idea is to compile, right here and now, a file of your images that were great in spite of the fact that they were not what you were initially after. Things that distracted you, with delightful results. Things that began by feeling wrong, then turned wonderfully right. Keep that file, label it Who The Hell Shot This?, and add to it over a lifetime to remind you that a stranger sometimes comes into your process and leaves you golden eggs.
Artists love to see themselves as flautists making beautiful music, when, actually, we are, in our luckiest moments, the flute itself, the wind rushing through us to facilitate melody. Now, translate that concept to photography, and ask: what does it matter whether you take the picture or the picture takes you?