by MICHAEL PERKINS
SUNDAY MORNINGS AT THE LOS ANGELES COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART ARE A GAGGLE OF GIGGLES, a furious surge of activity for, and by, little people. Weekly craft workshops at LACMA are inventive, inclusive, and hands-on. If you can cut it, fold it, glue it, paint it, or assemble it, it’s there, with booths that feature encouraging help from slightly larger people and smiles all around. It is a fantastic training ground as well for photographing kids in their natural element.
A recent Sunday featured the rolling out of long strips of art paper into rows along one of the common sidewalks, with museum guides on bullhorn exhorting the young to create their own respective visions with paint and brush. The event itself was rich in possibility, as a hundred little dramas and crises unfolded along the wide, white canvasses. Here a furrowed brow, there an assist from Mom. Fierce concentration. Dedication of purpose. Sunshaded Picassos-in-waiting weighing the use of color, stroke, concept. A mass of masters, and plenty of chances for really decent images.
Most of these events are as fast as they are furious, and so, during their brief duration, you can go from photographic cornucopia to….where did everybody go? Sometimes it’s over so quickly that it’s really tempting to treat the entire thing like low-hanging fruit: a ton of kids pass before your eyes in a few minutes’ time, and you have only to stand and click away. Thing is, I’m a lifelong believer in arriving early and leaving late, simply because the unexpected bit of gold will drop into your lap when you troll around before the beginning or after the end of things. In the case of this museum “paint-in”, the participants scampered on to the next project in one big sweep, leaving their artwork behind like a ruined battlefield. And then, miracle of miracles, one lone girl wandered into the near center of this huge Pollack panorama and sat herself down. The event was over but the vibe was revived. I whispered thank you, photo gods, and framed to use the paintings as a visual lead-in to her. It couldn’t have been simpler, luckier, or happier.
When the “stage” on public events is being either set or struck, there are marvelous chances to peer a bit deeper.People are typically relaxed, less guarded. The feel of everything has an informality, even an intimacy. And sometimes a small child brings the gift of her spirit into the frame, and you remember why you keep doing this.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THESE DAYS IT SEEMS TO TAKE LESS TIME TO SNAP A PHOTOGRAPH THAN IT DOES TO DECIDE WHETHER IT HAS ANY MERIT. Photography is still largely about momentary judgements, and so it stands to reason that some are more well-conceived than others. There’s a strong temptation to boast that “I meant to do that, of course” when the result is a good one, and to mount an elaborate alibi when the thing crashes and burns, but, even given that very human tendency, some pictures stubbornly linger between keeper and krap, inhabiting a nether region in which you can’t absolutely pronounce them either success or failure.
The image at left is one such. It was part of a day spent in New York’s Central Park, and for most of the shots taken on that session, I can safely determine which ones “worked”. This one, however, continues to defy a clear call either way. Depending on which day I view it, it’s either a slice-of-life capture that shows the density of urban life or a visual mess with about four layers too much glop going on. I wish there were an empirical standard for things like photographs, but…..wait, I really don’t wish that at all. I like the fact that none of us is truly certain what makes a picture resonate. If there were such a standard for excellence, photography could be reduced to a craft, like batik or knitting. But it can never be. The only “mission” for a photographer, however fuzzy, is to convey a feeling. Some viewers will feel like a circuit has been completed between themselves and the artist. But even if they don’t, the quest is worthwhile, and goes ever on.
I have played with this photo endlessly, converting it to monochrome, trying to enhance detail in selective parts of it, faking a tilt-shift focus, and I finally present it here exactly as I shot it. I am gently closer to liking it than at first, but I feel like this one will be a problem child for years to come. Maybe I’m full of farm compost and it is simply a train wreck. Maybe it’s “sincere but just misunderstood”. I’m okay either way. I can accept it for a near miss, since it becomes a reference point for trying the same thing with better success somewhere down the road.
And, if it’s actually good, well, of course, I meant to do that.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE STRANGEST VISUAL EVIDENCE OF MAN’S PRESENCE ON THE PLANET IS HIS ABILITY TO COMPARTMENTALIZE HIS THINKING, the ability to say, of his living patterns, “over here, cool. Over there, six inches away, ick. You see these kind of yes/no, binary choices everywhere. The glittering, gated community flanked by feral urban decay. The open pasture land that abuts a zoo. And the natural world, trying desperately to be heard above the roar of its near neighbors from our co-called “civilization”.
I recently re-evaluated this image of the running paths at Los Angeles’ Griffith Park and the nearby uber-grid of the central city. The colors are a bit muted since it was taken on a day of pretty constant rolling overcast, and it really is not a definitive portrait of either the city or the nearby greenspace, but there is a little story to be told in the ability of the two worlds to co-exist.
L.A’s lore is rife with stories of destroyed environments, twisted eco-structure, bulldozed neighborhoods and political hackery advanced at great cost to the poor and the powerless. In the face of that history, the survival of Griffith, a 4,310-acre layout of parks, museums, kiddie zoos, sports courts, and concert venues on the eastern end of the Santa Monica Mountains, is something of a miracle. It’s the lion lying down with the lamb, big-time, a strange and lucky juxtaposition that affords some of the most interesting fodder for photographers anywhere in California. Photogs observe natural pairings in the world, but they also chronicle alienations, urban brothers from different mothers, tales of visual conflicts that, while they can’t be reconciled, are worth noting.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR YEARS I HAVE BEEN SHOOTING SUBJECTS IN THE URBAN AREAS OF PHOENIX, ARIZONA, trying to convey the twin truths that, yes, there are greenspaces here, and yes, it is possible for a full range of color to be captured, despite the paint-peeling, hard white light that overfills most of our days. Geez, wish I had been shooting here in the days of Kodachrome 25. Slow as that film was, the desert would have provided more than enough illumination to blow it out, given the wrong settings. Now if you folks is new around here, lemme tell you about the brilliant hues of the Valley of the Sun. Yessir, if’n you like beige, dun, brown, sepia or bone, we’ve got it in spades. Green is a little harder to come by, since the light registers it in a kind of sickly, sagebrush flavor….kind of like Crayola’s “green-yellow” (or is it “yellow-green”?) rather than a deep, verdant, top-o-the-mornin’ Galway green.
But you can do workar0unds.
In nearby Scottsdale, hardly renowned for its dazzling urban parks (as opposed to the resort properties, which are jewels), Indian School Park at Hayden and Indian School Roads is a very inviting oasis, built around a curvy, quiet little pond, dozens of mature shade trees that lean out over the water in a lazy fashion, and, on occasion, some decorator white herons. Thing is, it’s also as bright as a steel skillet by about 9am, and surrounded by two of the busiest traffic arteries in town. That means lots of cars in your line of sight for any standard framing. You can defeat that by turning 180 degrees and aiming your shots out over the middle of the pond, but then there is nothing really to look at, so you’re better off shooting along the water’s edge. Luckily, the park is below street level a bit, so if you frame slightly under the horizon line you can crop out the cars, but, with them, the upper third of the trees. Give and take.
There is still a ton of light coming down between the shade trees, however, so if you want any detail in the water or trees at all, you must shoot into shade where you can, and go for a much faster shutter speed….1/500 up to 1/1000 or faster. It’s either that or shoot the whole thing at a small f-stop like f/11 or more. In desert settings you’ve got so much light that you can truly dance near the edge of what would normally be underexposure, and all it will do is boost and deepen the colors that are there. There will still be a few hot spots on projecting roots and such where the light hits, but the beauty of digital is that you can click away and adjust as you go.
It’s not quite like creating greenspace out of nothing, but there are ways to make things plausibly seem to be a representation of real life, and, since this is an interpretive medium, there’s no right or wrong. And the darker-than-normal shadows in this kind of approach add a little warmth and mystery, so there’s that.
It was “yellow-green”, wasn’t it?
Hope that’s not on the final.
(follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THIS WEEK, THE SPACE AT GROUND ZERO marks an anniversary that is slightly different from the annual reverences afforded the fallen of September 11, 2001. Even as we put a little more chronological, if not emotional, distance between ourselves and the unspeakable and obscene events that tore the fabric of history on that morning, we begin a second era of sorts, as we mark the first year of operation for the 9/11 Memorial that tries so nobly to advance, if not complete, the healing process. The site, specifically the pools marking the foundational footprints of the north and south towers of the World Trade Center, is no less noble because it has been asked to provide an impossible service. Some things are beyond our reach, but that does not mean that the reaching effort should not be made. Something must endure that physically, visually states who our lost brothers and sisters were. And even a compromised version of that effort, wrested from people’s individual hearts and needs in an agonizing discussion, needs to be attempted.
Visiting the site just two months after its opening last year, I asked myself, how could we have done better, or more? Is there enough, just enough here, to fight off our lazy national habit of collective amnesia? Is there at least a start, marked on this spot, at trying to makes these names matter and persist in memory?
Every day, thousands ask that same question, and there are endless versions of the answer. It’s a gravesite, but a gravesite that is missing many of those being remembered. It is a memorial, but unlike most memorials, it is not located on a neutrally designated “elsewhere”, but on the actual place where the victims fell. It is a beautiful thing that evokes horror, and it is a place of horror where beauty is sorely needed to make going forward imaginable. Standing at the pool’s perimeters, you are struck silent, and you worry over the day when silence may not be the first response to this vista, as, properly, it still is at Gettysburg and Pearl Harbor. And we wish we could know that there was even one atom of comfort afforded by this effort to those left behind, many of whom were annihilated no less in spirit than their loved ones were in fact. If you ever pray here, that’s what you pray for.
Shooting the above image, I wanted to wait for the morning surge of visitors to clear away as completely as possible. I felt, and still feel, that the site itself is at last, a noble thing, and neither I nor any other people around it can help breaking the visual serenity it presents. My shot is also, now, a bit of a time machine, since the rebuilding of the WTC site is now nearer completion by a year. The weather that morning was flawless, in a way in which, on every other place on the earth, does not automatically trigger a feeling of foreboding. I wished I was a better photographer, or that, on that morning, I could become one, if even for an instant. Looking around, I saw many others making the same vain wish. And, in the end, I still feel that I left something untold. But, whatever I captured was at least my personal way of seeing it, and it was about as close to “right” as I was going to get.
And getting “as close we can” is what we have to settle for, at this point in time, in processing the events of 9/11. I am always struck, in reading the remembrances from surviving families and spouses, by how absent of hate and anger most of them are. They fight only to understand, to place it all in some kind of workable context for living. Many of us may never get there. However, life is a journey, and, today, as with all of the anniversaries of this tragedy, we have to hope that we can at least stay on the path toward discovery and peace. The memorial is the first step in that journey.
- NYC 9/11 memorial surpasses 4 million visitors (kfwbam.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF THERE IS SUCH A THING AS PHOTOGRAPHIC STAGE FRIGHT, it most likely is that vaguely apprehensive feeling that kicks in just before you connect with a potentially powerful subject. And when that subject is really Subject One, i.e., New York City, well, even a pro can be forgiven a few butterflies. They ain’t kidding when they sing, if I can make it there I can make it anywhere. But, of course, the Apple is anything but anywhere…….
Theoretically, if “there are eight million stories in the Naked City”, you’d think a photographer would be just fine selecting any one of them, since there is no one single way of representing the planet’s most diverse urban enclave. And there are over 150 years of amazing image-making to support the idea that every way of taking in this immense subject is fair territory.
And yet we are drawn (at least I am) to at least weigh in on the most obvious elements of this broad canvas. The hot button attractions. The “to-do list” locations. No, it isn’t as if the world needs one more picture of Ellis Island or the Brooklyn Bridge, and it isn’t likely that I will be one of the lucky few who will manage to bring anything fresh to these icons of American experience. In fact, the odds are stacked horribly in the opposite direction. It is far safer to predict that every angle or framing I will try will be a precise clone of millions of other visualizations of almost exactly the same quality. Even so, with every new trip to NYC I have to wean myself away from trying to create the ultimate postcard,to focus upon one of the other 7,999,999 stories in the city. Even at this late date, there are stories in the nooks and crannies of the city that are largely undertold. They aren’t as seductive as the obvious choices, but they may afford greater rewards, in that there may be something there that I can claim, that I can personally mine from the rock.
By the time this post is published, I will be taking yet another run at this majestic city and anything additional in the way of stories that I can pry loose from her streets. Right now, staring at this computer, nothing has begun, and everything is possible. That is both exhilarating and terrifying. The way to banish the travel jitters is to get there, and get going. And yes, I will bring back my share of cliches, or attempts at escaping them. But, just like a stowaway on a ship arriving in the New World, something else may smuggle itself on board.
I have to visit my old girlfriend again, even if we wind up agreeing to be just friends.
And, as all photographers (and lovers) do, I hope it will lead to something more serious.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK IS A SUPREME PARADOX FOR A SHOOTER. On one hand, it has never been technically easier to simulate the texture and range of tones that were hard-won miracles for its guardian angel, Ansel Adams. On the other, the very act of visiting the park has never presented a more severe barrier to the kind of mental and emotional commitment to picture making that was, to him, a constant.
The original mission of this blog is to share creative successes from amateur to amateur, but also to name the problems which restrict us to taking, instead of making, pictures. Yosemite, historically the proving ground for photographers the world over, also presents one of these problems.
Adams had to suffer, slog, hike, and persevere to set up his visions, all the while wrestling with a technology that punished the slightest miscalculation. The park itself presented a rugged challenge to him as well in the early 20th century, as its greatest vistas were not just a minivan jog away and its best treasures resisted his inquiring eye. So how come his pictures are so much better, still, than anything most of us can deliver in an age of ultimate simplicity, ease, and access?
There is a disturbing statistic quoted by the park service, that the average visitor to Yosemite is actually in the park for a grand total of two and a half hours. Not exactly the time investment that a photographic subject of this scope warrants. We also tend to enter the park in much the same way, stop by a predictable list of features, and take most of the same “money shots”. We all know where the good stuff is, and it seems to be irresistible to offer up our “take” on the craggy face of El Capitan, the serene power of the Mariposa Grove (with its astonishing giant sequoias), or the obligatory capture of a waterfall….hell, any waterfall. And yet….I can’t be the only one who has come home from vacation to find that my pictures are just….okay. Overwhelmingly…..non-sucky. Stunningly….passable.
Adams’ life’s work, a mutual exchange of energy in which he and Yosemite were creative partners in the deliberate making of images, is, for us, a re-creation, a simulation, the photo equivalent of karaoke. Just like many lounge lizards “kinda” sing like Sinatra, too many of us “kinda” shoot pictures like Ansel. For Adams, photography was like asking the wilderness to dance. For us, it’s like asking the mountains to say “cheese”.
Part of his mission was showing us what a treasure we had, but he might have sold the product too well. Part of the Yosemite that spoke to him is gone, compromised into tameness by sidewalks,snack bars, and gift shops. Worse, much of what we do choose to record of it is done in quick stops off the tour bus, stolen moments before the kids get too tired , and the rabid urgency of God-let’s-hurry-up-we-have-three-more-places-to-hit-today. Indeed, park officials laughingly refer to people who drive in and out of the park’s main areas without even emerging from their cars, bragging that they “did” Yosemite, like a ten minute rock wall climb at REI, squeezed in before a trip to the food court.
The Ansel Adams Gallery, which has operated in the park for more than a century now, certainly features fresh visions by new artists who are still re-interpreting the wonder, still managing to say something unique. But many of our cameras will betray how little of our selves are invested behind the viewing screen. Adams’ work resonates through time because we recognize when someone has poured part of their soul into the creative cauldron. And certainly, if we are honest, we also know when that ingredient is missing.
“I want to see your face in every kind of light” goes the old love song lyric. Being in love with a woman, an idea, anything, demands time, deliberation. To see the object of one’s affection in all light, all seasons, all moods and tempers, is more of a pact than many of us are willing to make. The pictures we bring back from many places may not be lessened in their impact by this fact. But Yosemite is not “many places”, and she will not give up her secrets to just anyone. Fortunately, if we care, we can return and try again to do more than merely tattoo pixels onto a sensor. That has always been the promise of photography, that you can redeem your myopia from one day by re-thinking, re-feeling on another. But it means changing the rules of engagement with our subject. For those of us who cannot or will not do that, the world will not stop spinning, and, in fact, we will chalk up many acceptable images along the way, but Ansel will always be the one among us who really understood the magic, and discovered how to conjure it at will.
- What’s black & white, famous, and coming to Peabody? (hangwithbigpictureframing.com)
- A Weekend in Yosemite (theepochtimes.com)