By MICHAEL PERKINS
A FEW YEARS AGO, in trying to express what it felt like not to have a distinctly defined photographic style, I used the title of one of my favorite Van Morrison albums, No Guru, No Method, No Teacher, a phrase which even Van The Man may have lived to regret. The idea was that I couldn’t trace my own approach to making pictures directly to any particular mentor, not that I was so bloody original that I had never fallen under anyone’s influence. The problem in identifying my teachers, gurus and methods was certainly my own; I simply found it hard to draw a straight line from the examples of various photographers to elements of my own work. Now, I find that I can enumerate many profound professors, once I realized that the best of them are often not photographers at all.
That’s where my wife Marian comes in.
I have already spoken at length in these pages of her amazing value to me as a muse and model, but her ability to inspire me as a subject is separate and distinct from her role as a real and fundamental teacher. We’re not talking technical instruction here. This is a woman who has seldom even picked up a camera unless it was in the service of candid shots of friends and loved ones, or as a recording device to freeze the good times of a trip or vacation. Nonetheless she has taught me to see in very specific ways, expanding my idea of what should even be looked at. That ability resides in her love of the natural world, a place where she is a native and I am often a mere visitor. Her passion for birdwatching, for example, has helped me shoot anything, bird or object, with greater patience and deliberation, showing me the value of waiting for your moment. In her case, that might mean standing for fifteen minutes for a glimpse of the bright flicker on the wing of a flitting bluebird, while the equivalent for me might be the discipline to wait for light which, if I wait for an extra five minutes, will be perfect for exactly ten seconds.
Just as most of my other best photographic teachers are not shooters per se, Marian teaches by not trying to; her curiosity incites my own; her humility refines my own. I happily list her among the poets, illustrators, spiritualists and secular saints, from James Thurber to Emerson to Gibran, who have shown me things that no purely technical instruction ever could. Certainly among my heroes are listed many who are, in fact, actual photographers, but, since photography occurs in the eye and the soul long before it animates the hand, there are many people I love for the pictures that reside exclusively in their souls. Marian and I, like many millions of other couples, have spent three lifetimes together over the past year, and she has helped me go from caterpillar to butterfly in the metamorphosis of my camera work. That’s a gift beyond price, and a learning experience beyond the limiting titles of teacher, guru, or method.
And I am grateful.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS THE CAMERA IS A KIND OF REPORTER, it is called upon to capture or convey every aspect of the human experience. In a strict journalistic context, this can mostly consist of emotional extremes…..that is, joy, devastation, triumph, disaster, life, death. Feelings that laugh (or scream) out loud sell newspapers and pump ratings. But photographers are also called upon to show that, for one reason or another, we humans spend a lot of time….waiting.
You can make your own list of all the things we actually wait upon: trains, planes, the next opportunity, the last piece of cake, Christmas, true love. To be human is to abide, to patiently hang until the next item on life’s menu comes along. Sometimes there is nothing visually special in all that waiting. On the other hand, sometimes we can use our cameras to depict our restlessness, our expectation. Certainly time can slow to a crawl, and, with it, the heartbeat of our existence. But occasionally, all that “nothing looks”, at least in a photograph, like something.
We learn to document and measure emptiness. Cities before they fully wake. Courtrooms that have just emptied out. The first seepage of night into the dying day. Places that should be bustling, but aren’t. Towns on the edge of the end. People who’ve been stood up, left out, or merely missed their connection. But, there’s no guarantee that when “nothing” happens, a picture with “something” results. Sometimes, nothing is just…nothing.
But then again….
The hotel lobby seen here has graced its small town for over a hundred years. And it stands to reason that, if the owners were making a promotional video of that century, the end product would feature plenty of images of the famous and infamous who crossed its threshold over the joint’s lifetime. The parties. The ends of wars. The changes from horse-drawn carriages to tin lizzies. But today, there are no greatest hits on the schedule. Today, there is only waiting. Killing time. Glancing at the clock, again. Last week’s stale gossip reheated for today’s visitors. Perhaps a weary remark by someone that “nothing ever happens around here”. The challenge, then: on this particular day, will all that nothing arrange itself into a scene, a small story about a small day, a tale worth telling? Or is the waiting all there is?
Making photographs on “nothing” days is an exercise, just like push-ups or jumping jacks. Often it merely amounts to keeping in practice. Staying limber. Just in case. Still, the pictures where nothing happens are occasionally, themselves, something else.
Anyone around here have a deck of cards?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE, IN THE VERY INSTANT THAT I COMPOSE AND SNAP A PHOTOGRAPH, it occurs to me that, in the past, there might have been circumstances under which I talked myself out of taking that very same shot. That is, there is something in the scene before me that, at some time, might have convinced me not to attempt the picture at all. I don’t know whether to interpret this feeling as proof of growth of any type, or whether it just demonstrates my utter lack of confidence. I just know that, on different days, I can be a very different kind of photographer.
As habitual users of The Normal Eye already know, this small-town newspaper is less about the mechanics of taking a picture and more about the motivations. If we don’t understand what compels us to click/not click in particular situations, it’s pretty hard for us to figure what the whole thing’s about. Photographs are chosen, not “taken”. So, let’s peel apart my inner conversation in the making of the image seen below.
In looking at this scene from two years ago, in which some shadowy residential streets of Reno, Nevada are back-stopped by the Sierras, I could, through my own experience, easily rattle off a short grocery list of reasons not to attempt the picture. Among them:
There is too wide a contrast between the foreground and background (but is that a problem, really?).
I’m shooting through a window and therefore can’t absolutely suppress glare and reflection (but is that a deal breaker?).
There is, at first glimpse, no human story in evidence (or is there merely an absence of people in the frame? Aren’t the houses indicative of a “human story”?).
Okay, I’ll take the picture, but I’ll totally fix it later in “post”( fix it, or over-cook it and make it “ideal” rather than natural?).
……..and so on, with the additional inclusion of the most compelling “why not to” reason of them all:
the last time I tried something like this, it was a disaster.
You can see where this can lead. The very experience that should be helping you make more, better informed choices can actually scare you into seeing certain shooting situations as fraught with risk, as something to be avoided. Since we know what didn’t work in the past, we tend to think we also know what won’t work in the future. In reality, though, every time we’re up to bat, some little thing is different from our last time. Huge stuff like a different camera or lens, small stuff like being tired or distracted and every other variant in between. We may think we’ve “been here before”, but that’s only generally true. The only real way to make a picture a success or failure is to try to shoot it. Guesswork, even guesswork based on real-life experience, can paralyze. Sift through what you know and what you’ve lived through. Re-live all your so-called “failed” pictures, and then get back on the horse. As Rudyard Kipling said, “meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same.”
I don’t preach many absolutes here, but remember this one:
Always. Shoot. The. Picture.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY ARTIST MUST KNOW WHICH CANVAS (or platform) is best for his particular work. And while photography is so rangy and wide, trying to find an area of speciality is no great challenge, so long as you are honest with yourself as to what your eye can effectively deliver. Do portraits alone help your vision pour forth? Then move in that direction, certainly. Drawn to minimalism as a way of expression? Then simplify, my son, simplify, and go in peace.
In fact, my own visual bias, if that’s the word, runs counter to my earliest influences. The first photographs that made me gasp in awe were, in fact, landscapes, since, as a boy, I collected many travel slides and magazines which emphasized life in the natural world. However, my second great influence was that of the great urban photographers, both journalists and poets, whose medium was the man-made, and not the organic, type of mountain. And even though I continued to marvel at the stunning statements made by naturalist shooters, I came to know that I did not have anything particularly wise or wonderful to contribute in that area.
I love nature. It is restorative, contemplative, and any other “ive” you choose. However, I cannot, personally, produce anything poetic or glorious in depicting it. I envy ecumenical writers like Walt Whitman, who reveled in both mountain and city street alike, describing both with incredible passion and power. As a photographer, however, I decided long ago to shoot where my eye is most organically excited…and that’s the city. I can never completely abandon scenic subjects, since I continue to hold out hope that one or another of them will make my heart leap to my throat, and, in turn, make a great vision leap into my camera.
Of course, the longer you make photographs, the more universal your purely technical competence becomes, in that you can deliver a serviceable picture regardless of the assignment. But a photograph is never merely a recording, and simply making an adequately composed, reasonably exposed frame is no greater an achievement than waiting the requisite number of minutes to soak a tea bag. It’s not so much knowing how to make the picture as wanting to, since that desire is the principal difference between acceptable and exceptional. Of course, passion is also not enough, any more than technical acumen is. But when the two meet, they will produce your best work.
As in the author’s mantra “write what you know about”, “shoot what you feel” must surely be a kind of aspirational prayer for better pictures. Can anyone say if a tree is less beautiful than a skyscraper? Not with any true authority. Point that camera where your heart points, and it’s hard to go far wrong.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
A VIDEO BIOGRAPHY OF JOHN SZARKOWSKI, FORMER DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY for the New York Museum Of Modern Art, makes the salient point that most great photographers begin by being great fans of photography, almost to the point of studying the work of others as much as they work to perfect their own craft. This makes perfect sense. Before you can teach others to see, you have to learn to see yourself. And that begins with watching how other people see.
Learning from the masters doesn’t necessarily mean stealing from them, or even being stylistically influenced by them. What you see most importantly in other photographers is how closely their selves are married to how they personally take the measure of the world in visual terms. You learn how few real accidents there are, how few miraculous pictures merely pop out of the camera fully formed. You see the deliberate agency of art, the conscious decision to choose this in order to achieve that.
Szarkowski, who oversaw MOMA’s photographic collections and exhibitions from 1962 to 1991, bore witness as well to the first true acceptance of photography as an art unto itself, with a vocabulary, a power, a poetry separate and distinct from painting. Under Szarkowski’s tutelage, the great new personal photographers, from Garry Winogrand to Diane Arbus to Lee Friedlander, moved from the periphery to the center of popular culture.
Not content to merely designate work worth seeing, or providing it with a prominent platform, Szarkowski also edited and published two of the most important general-use guides to what all of us should look for in a photograph. His seminal books The Photographer’s Eye and Looking At Photographs, both comprised of works from within MOMA’s collections, examined more than just subject matter or technical data, looking at the motives, biases, objectives and visions involved in the making of pictures. Most importantly, both books placed known and unknown shooters on an equal par, making the study of the art about what is achieved, not just how, or by whom.
I cannot imagine having sustained a lifelong interest in making images if I had not first encountered the works of, among others, Pete Turner, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Larry Burrows, Richard Avedon, Berenice Abbott, Alfred Stieglitz, Art Kane, Weegee, Sam Abell, or Francis Wolff. Many of these people thrilled and inspired me. Sometimes they infuriated or shocked me. And sometimes they did all of that in the same moment. All have knocked me upside of the head and repeated, over a lifetime: Look here. Look closer. Look again.
Don’t ever let anyone tell you that photography is about technique, gear, luck or natural ability. You can work around all that stuff. But if you can’t see, you can’t show.
Study. Read. Admire.
Feed your eye.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHAT MAKES A LENS GREAT, AT LEAST FOR ME, is the degree to which I can forget about it.
The best images come from being able to shoot decisively and in the moment. That means knowing instinctively what your lens is good at, and using that information to salvage more pictures. Such knowledge only comes from repetition, trial and error, patience, and all those other tedious old-school virtues that drive people crazy but drive their work to perfection. And, eventually, it means you and the lens must think and react as one, without a lot of conscious thought.
I only know one way to get to that point with a given piece of glass, and that’s to be “monogamous” with it, using a given lens for nearly 100% of my work for long periods of time. Shuffling constantly from lens to lens in an effort to get “just the right gear” for a particular frame actually leads me to be hyper-conscious of the limits or strengths of what I’m shooting with, to be less focused on making pictures and more focused on calculating the taking of pictures. I believe that the best photos start coming the closer you can get to a purely reflexive process. See-feel-shoot.
If you’ve never chosen your own version of a “go-to” lens, one that can stay on your camera almost always, and give you nearly every kind of shot, I would suggest biting off a fat space of practice time and trying it. Snap on a 35mm and make it do everything that comes to hand for a day. Then a week. Then a month. Then start thinking of what would actually necessitate taking that lens off and going with something else. And for what specific benefit?
You may find that it’s better getting 100% comfortable with one or two lenses than to have a passing acquaintance with six or seven. The above image could have been taken with about five different lenses with comparable results. But whatever lens I used, it would have been easier and faster if I had selected it because it would also work for the majority of the other shots I was to attempt that day. Less time rummaging around in your kit bag equals more time to take pictures.
Every time there is a survey on what the most popular focal length in photography is, writers tend to forget that the number one source of imagery today is a cell phone camera. That means that, already, most of the world is shooting everything in the 30-35mm range and making it work. And before we long for the “good old days” of infinite choices, recall that most photographers born before 1960 had one camera, equipped with one lens. We like to think we are swimming in choices but we need to make sure we’re not actually drowning in them.
Find the workhorse gear that has the most flexibility and reliability for what you most want to do. Chances are the lens that will give you the best results isn’t the shiny new novelty in the catalogue, but just inches away, right in your hand.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN HER BRILLIANT 1979 BEST SELLER DRAWING ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE BRAIN, art teacher Betty Edwards, while obviously addressing the creative process chiefly as it regards graphics, also contributed to a better understanding of the same visualization regimen used by photographers. In its clear explanation of the complementary roles of the brain’s hemispheres in making an image, Ms. Edwards demonstrates that photographs can never be just a matter of chiefly left-brained technique or merely the by-product of unfettered, right-brained fancy.
And that’s important to understand as we grow our approach to our craft over time. It’s ridiculous to imagine that we can make compelling images without a certain degree of left-brained mastery, just as you can’t drive a nail if you don’t know how to hold a hammer. But it’s equally crazy to try to take pictures without the right-brained inspiration that sees the potential in a composition or subject even before the left knows how, technically, it can be achieved. One side problem-solves while the other dreams. One hemisphere is an anchor, a foundation: the other is a helium balloon.
When you develop a plan for your next shoot, selecting the lenses and tools you’ll need, scoping out the best locations, it’s all left brain. But, comes the day of the shoot, your right brain might just fall in love with something that wasn’t in the blueprint, something that just must be dealt with now. Fact is, neither side can hold absolute sway. When you are laboring a long time to get a particular picture, you can almost feel the two hemispheres arguing for control. But all that left-right-left toggling isn’t a bad thing, nor should you expect there to be one clear “winner” in the struggle. The pictures that emerge have to be an agreement, or at least a truce between “how do we do this?” and “why should we do this?”.
I have pictures, such as the one up top here, that I call five-minute wonders, so named because they go very quickly from conception to completion. They are like impulse items in the grocery checkout line. I’ll take some of this, a few of these, and one of those, toss them together in a bowl, and see what happens. Sounds very right-brained, right? However, none of these quickie projects would work if I simply don’t know how to make the camera give me what I want. That’s all left brain. The point is, the two factions must at least have a grudging conversation with each other. Right-brained creativity gets all the chicks and the cool clothes: it’s the flashy rock star of the photo universe, a sexy bad boy who just won’t listen to reason. However, Lefty has to take the wheel occasionally or Righty will crash the sports car and we’ll all die horribly.
It’s romantic to believe that all our great photographs come from blindingly brilliant flashes of pure inspiration. That’s where the lomography movement with its cheap plastic cameras and its “don’t think, shoot” mantra comes from. And impulse certainly plays its part. However, anyone who tells you that amazing images come solely from some bottomless wellspring of the soul is only telling you half the truth. Sometimes you can spend the day playing hooky, and some days you gotta stay inside and do your homework.
Left, right, left….
By MICHAEL PERKINS
A PERSON’S RELATIONSHIP WITH PHOTOGRAPHY, MEASURED OVER A LIFETIME, can come to resemble a marriage, with all the occasional rifts, rumbles and repellents of living with anyone (or anything) nonstop ’til death. Just as any good golfer has thrown the odd club into the 7th hole lake, any shooter worth his emulsions/pixels will, at least once, consider pitching his gear into the nearest abyss, then setting a cheery bonfire of his accumulated work alight in the home driveway (after securing all necessary permits, of course). I dare you to deny it. We hate intensely because we have loved intensely, and fallen intensely short.
The fury eventually abates, however, and we resume the “on” portion of the on again/off again love of photography, not knowing when it next will toggle to “off”, or if switching back to “on” even has any prospect of success. The fact is, creative passion can generate emotional surges, microbursts of feeling so intense they could pop the top off a seismograph. This means answering “the questions” as they ring inside your skull:
Why did I ever start doing this?
What made me thing I’d ever be any good at it?
And where is that damned lens?????
In the interest of my own sanity, I never contemplate a total divorce from photography, but I avidly support the need for a trial separation from time to time. Every relief valve has to be opened and flushed out occasionally, and when the ideas, or the patience to execute them, seem to have gone south for the winter, you have to furlough the workers and shut down the plant. For a while. Hammering away at a problem with an image may eventually loosen what’s stuck, but it’s just as valuable to know when to lay down your tools and quit the scene. For a while. Once your brain is running on high-octane rage, all things beautiful and visionary will just be drowned out by all the screaming, so, really, I’m not kidding: accept the fact that occasionally you’ll announce to all your friends and family that you’re “over the whole photography thing”. And you will absolutely mean it.
For a while.
Here’s another thought: fake-quitting photography will provide the most severe test of how much you were into it in the first place. A trial separation is just that: a test to see if there was anything worth saving in the relationship. Scary process, but, if you come back, whether to a partner or a Nikon, you come back renewed and freshly committed to Make This Thing Work. All of a sudden, you’re bringing your Canon chocolates and roses, and arranging for a romantic candlelight dinner. And the work grows again.
For a while.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS A YOUNG PIANO STUDENT, I NOTICED THAT MANY OF MY FAVORITE SHORT WORKS all bore the elegant, mysterious name of etude. It was somewhat later that I realized that this was merely the French word for a “study”, and that some of what I regarded as highly developed, final compositions were, essentially, first versions, practice runs by the masters in search of some eventual greatness. And, since I was an illustrator as well as a musician, the idea of an etude as a prototype, a first version of something dovetailed nicely with the idea of a sketch, or as my father called it, a “rough”. An etude was a work in progress.
Then came photography and, with it, the giddy short-term gratification of just snapping a picture, of crossing a visual item off one’s to-do list. We are, as humans naturally attracted to the process of completion, of turning out a finished product. Click. Done. Moving on….However, despite what the auction houses and gallery curators of the world might try to tell you, art is not a product, and just like those melodiously wondrous etudes, the best images are always in the process of being created. You can always take a picture to another level, but you can’t finish it.
Walk across to the painters’ side of the Art building every once in a while and look at how many preliminary studies Leonardo or Michelangelo made of their greatest works, or the number of “early” and “late” versions there are of these same masterpieces. Now, travel back to the photography wing and witness Ansel Adams taking one crack after another at the same stony face of El Capitan, often merely reworking the same master negative up to a half dozen times over decades. You simply have to make different pictures of the same subjects across a lifetime, just because your idea of what’s important to show keeps evolving.
Finally, look objectively at your own output and discover how many of your older images are “good pictures” and how many are good ideas for pictures. You’ll no doubt find your own personal “etudes”, the studies that can still become something better. In my own case, I have to walk away from floral subjects from time to time, then return to approach them with a different mindset, since I’m equally fascinated and clueless as to how to imbue them with anything approaching soulfulness. My eye struggles to make something magical emerge from buds and bouquets as others have done. But I’ll stay at it.
Digital processes make it possible to crank through a wide variety of approaches to the same subject in a very short span of time compared to film-based techniques. Think easy-fast-cheap. Or think good-better-best if you like. Either way, the layers of learning are stacked ever higher and deeper, allowing us to regard photography as process instead of product. So do your scales every day, keep your fingers high and curved, and stay curious.
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
YOU MAY FIND, AS I HAVE, THAT MANY OF THE BEST PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE ALSO, ARTISTICALLY, SPEAKING, “SOMETHING ELSE“. That is, their creative energies emerge in more than just one medium, even if images are their preferred language. This has always been thus. During the camera’s infancy, many photogs were former painters. Writers were also among the first to explore the new art of picture-making, and the amateur photo work of scribes like Emile Zola and Lewis Carroll remain worthy of note today.
In the 20th century, some painters-turned-photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson turned back to the brush late in life, while other artists like Man Ray stayed firmly anchored in both camps. And even the great theologian and poet Thomas Merton spent his last years as a Trappist monk dabbling in a kind of zen expressionism through the viewfinder of his Canon 35mm.
This doesn’t exactly prove that everyone who is adept in one kind of art will also be effective as a photographer, but it does demonstrate that some people who are curious in all ways of expression will sometimes also choose the camera as an instrument. I personally believe that this can only improve your way of seeing, since “vision” isn’t achieved merely through the eyes, but through the accumulation of all one’s life experience.
I would even go one step farther and claim that just studying photography may be bad for one’s development as a photographer. Rather, it is the total weight of one’s life which shapes one’s seeing, just as a worldlier view can inform one’s writing, cooking, singing, or strumming. No one art is so complete that it can operate in a vacuum, sealed away from all the other arts.
We readily accept that composers need to occasionally be historians, that writers should sometimes be philosophers, and that both painters and chefs should master a little science, so how can we believe that photographers can comment on the whole of life without at least dabbling in the world beyond their computers or darkrooms? You cannot be willfully blind as a person and visionary as a photographer at the same time. The more there is of you, the more of you there is that makes it into your pictures.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AN ELOQUENTLY DETAILED ANALYSIS OF A POWERFUL PHOTOGRAPH, which I read in a recent edition of the New York Times, convinced me anew that, apart from a few compositional basics, no one really knows what makes an image “work”. Beginners love to sing the praises of the Rule Of Thirds as a guideline for composition, and, likewise, critics rhapsodize about Golden Ratios as a way to dissect how powerful elements occupy space in great photos. But the dirty little secret about composition is that there is no dirty little secret, no Laws of Gravity or Relativity that, if consistently obeyed, will yield consistent excellence.
This doesn’t mean that we can’t emotionally identify which pictures have power, as well as those that merely lie there. It merely means that there may never be adequate verbal artillery to reduce those feelings to a law, a handbook, or a credo. We arrive with our cameras at places where there may, or may not be, a picture. Our eye tells us that something important can be extracted, isolated, amplified, re-contextualized. Beyond that, it’s a matter of fate and luck.
Of course, the more we experience what works, the better we are at seeing it in the raw and extracting better and better examples of it. However, every ride of the bucking bronco is distinctly different from all the others. Photography has certain mechanical techniques that can be mastered, certainly, but we can’t learn emotional impact in a class. We can only pour something out into the camera from what is already inside us.
Try to imagine walking up to a chalkboard and reducing your favorite photograph to a series of shorthand symbols reminiscent of a mathematician’s equation. Could anything be more bloodless, more clinical? Critics and analysts sometimes come from the ranks of doers, but many of the very best doers resist the temptation to dissect their art as if it were a lab frog. Henri Cartier-Bresson, the acknowledged Moses of street photography, once recalled that it was seeing another shooter’s best work that made him say, “Damn It!”, grab his camera, and head outside, obsessed with making something of his own that could incite such a reaction.
Photographers seize instinct and emotion in the raw and forge them into a kind of sense-fired steel. Frame a picture with that steel and it will speak a thousand times louder than any mere dissertation.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
T.S. ELIOT ONCE ASKED, POIGNANTLY, ‘WHAT IS THE SOUND OF ONE HAND CLAPPING?‘ as if there could be no lonelier thing in this weary world. However, had he been a photographer, he might also have mused about the sound of one wife sighing, as her husband assures her that “I just need one more shot“, or “you can all go ahead, I’ll meet you at the gift shop.” Such assurances would be enough to send Mrs. Eliot’s one hand clapping T.S. soundly about the ears.
We really do hear the steam escaping from our wives’ ears as we mutter about whether we need a prime lens or a wide-angle for our next masterpiece. We understand that it’s not much fun watching your beloved stare at a pile of junk in a dark alley, pondering whether it all makes a profound statement about the state of the world. We get the fact that you might prefer that we answer your question about whether your mother should come and live with us, rather than mumble, “if I close down to f/11 to get past that glare, I’m gonna lose two stops of light…”
In short, we know what a colossal pain it is to be with someone who constantly hauls around a mad gaggle of gears, gauges, geegaws and gadgets. We even realize that you might have a hard time remembering the last time you saw us walking around on only two legs…..you know, without the tripod.
We stipulate that, sometimes, a hunk of rock is just a hunk of rock, not a canvas on which to mount our genius, just as “a little light reading” to the rest of the world might mean a beach thriller by Robert Crais, not the flash attachment section of the B&H Video catalog. We even admit that it’s a little catty of us to stare across the room at a restaurant and make our one contribution to the table’s conversation with, “look at that stupid guy. He’s not even framing up his shot!”
Yes, ladies, we need to not so much “get a life” as to get a slightly larger, wider one. So, thank you for reminding us that, if we fall off this mountain by stepping back for the perfect composition, we might make orphan our children. Thank you for occasionally filling us in on certain details of said children’s lives, such as their proper names, birthdays, distinguishing features, etc. Thank you for not wincing when we name the family dog Steiglitz. Thank you for not leaving us for dead when we use the foil cover from your best picnic casserole for a makeshift bounce reflector.
Mostly, as in the above scene, we humbly thank you for not seizing the opportunity to dump us and our dratted gear in the nearest abyss.
And then taking a picture of it.
And then laughing, hysterically.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE WORST SOCIAL FAUX PAS OF OUR TIME may be the dreaded “TMI”, or the sin of sharing Too Much Information, creating awkward moments by regaling our friends with intimate details of our recent colostomies or carnal conquests. Funny thing is, much as we hate having this badge of uncoolness pinned to our chest, we commit its photographic equivalent all the time, and without a trace of shame.
I’m talking about the other TMI, or Too Many Images.
Let’s face it. Social media has encouraged too many of us to use the Web as a surplus warehouse dump for our photographs, many of them as ill-considered as a teenage girl’s hair flip. We’ve entered an endless loop of shoot-upload-repeat which seldom contains a step labeled “edit”. Worse, the vast storage space in our online photo vaults encourage us to share everything we shoot without so much as a backwards glance.
I’m suggesting that we take steps to stop treating the internet like an EPA Superfund site for images. I have tried to maintain a regular schedule of viewing the rearmost pages of my online archives, stuff from five years ago or longer, learning to ruthlessly rip out the shots that time has proven do not work. The goal is to force myself to re-think my original intentions and make every single photograph earn its slot in my overall profile. There are, by my calculation, three main sub-headings that these duds fall under:
A bad idea, well executed. Okay, you nailed the exposure and worked the gear to a “T”, but the picture has no story. There’s nothing being communicated or shared. Just because it’s sharp and well-lit doesn’t mean it deserves to stand alongside your stronger work.
A good idea, poorly executed. Hey, if you believe so strongly in the concept, go back and do it right. Don’t give yourself a pass on bad technique because it was a noble effort.
An incomplete idea, which means it wasn’t even time to take the picture at all. Maybe you didn’t know how to get your message across, for whatever reason. Or maybe if you got the conception 100% right, it still wasn’t strong enough to jump off the page. The litmus test is, if you wouldn’t want someone’s random search of your stuff to land on this shot instead of your best one, lose it.
Online stats make some of these tortured choices a bit easier, since, when you are looking at low figures on shots that have been available forever, it’s pretty clear that they aren’t lighting up anyone’s world. And as lame as view and fave counts can be, they are at least an initial signal pointer toward sick cows that need to be thinned from the herd. The cure for photographic “TMI” is actually as easy as shooting for long enough to get better. With a wider body of work viewed over time, the strong stuff stands out in bolder contrast to the weaker stuff. And that shows you where to wield the scissors.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
NEW YORK CITY IS A VERY IRONIC CANVAS. Artists who set brush upon that canvas may think they are attempting to depict something outside themselves, but what they show actually reveals very personal things. There are more stories than all the storytellers in the world can ever hope to render…in paint, in print, or through the lens of a camera, and while some of us entertain the notion that we are adding this commentary objectively, that, plainly, is impossible.
From handheld luggage to emotional baggage, everyone brings something to New York, layering their own dreams and dreads onto the multi-story sandwich of human experience that makes it the world’s most unique social laboratory. Hard as it is on the artistic ego, one can’t make the statement that defines the city. Wiser minds from Walt Whitman to Langston Hughes to Bob Dylan have tried, and they have all contributed their versions….wonderful versions. But the story can never be completed. New York won’t be contained by mere words and images. It is, like the song says, a state of mind.
Still, trying to scale the mountain can be fun. So, with this post, The Normal Eye has added a new gallery tab at the top of the page to share a few recent takes on my own ongoing love affair with the Apple. The title, I’ll Take Manhattan, is hardly original, but it is easy to remember. I have done essays on NYC before, but, this time out, I strove to focus as much on the rhythm of people as on the staggering scope of the skyline. New York is, finally, its people, that perpetually fresh infusion of rigor, rage, talent and terror that adds ever-new coats of paint to the neighborhoods, and this batch of pictures tries, in 2015, to show the town as it is used, by its daily caretakers. The push. The pull. The gamut of sensations from sky to gutter.
So have a look if you will and weigh these impressions against those you’ve discovered through others or developed within yourself. Taking on a photographic task that can never be finished is either frustrating or freeing, depending on your artistic viewpoint. In the meantime, what a ride.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS, IN THE NATURAL COURSE OF THEIR CONTINUING DEVELOPMENT, will, at one point or another, get hopelessly lost. Stuck. Stranded on a desert island. Fumbling for the way out of the scary forest. Artistically adrift. Call it a dead spot, a dry spell, or shooter’s cramp, but you can expect to hit a stretch of it at some time. The pictures won’t come. You can’t buy an idea. And, worst of all, you worry that it will last……like forever.
At such times it’s a great idea to turn yourself into a rabid researcher. The answer to how to get unstuck is, really, out there. In your pictures or in someone else’s. Let’s look at both resources.
Your own past photographs are a file folder of both successes and failures. Pore over both. There are specific reasons that some pictures worked, and other’s didn’t. Approach them with a fresh eye, as if a complete stranger had asked you to assess his portfolio. And be both generous and ruthless. You’re looking for truth here, not a security blanket.
Beyond your own stuff, start drilling down to the divinity of your heroes, those legends whose pictures amaze you, and who just might able to kick your butt a little. And, just so we’re being fair, don’t confine yourself to studying just the gold standard guys. Make yourself look at a whole bunch of bad upstarts and find something, even a small thing, that they are doing right that you’re not. Discover a newbie who shoots like an angel, or an Ansel. Empathize with someone who needs even more help than you do. Once you have mercy on someone else’s lack of perfection, it’s a lot easier to forgive it in yourself.
We “artistes” love to believe that all greatness happens in isolation, just our art and us and the great god Inspiration. But even when you shoot alone, you’re in a kind of phantom collaboration with everyone else who ever took a picture. And that’s as it should be. Slumps happen. But the magic will come back. You just need to know how to reboot your mojo.
And smile. It’s photography, after all.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS PHOTOGRAPHERS, WE HAVE A LIFETIME OF HEART-TO-HEART TALKS with ourselves, seeking the answer to questions like “what’s this I see?”, or “what do I want to tell?” Tricky thing is, of course, that, as time progresses, you are talking with a variety of conversational partners. As we age, we re-engineer nearly every choice-making process or system of priority. I loved Chef-By-Ar-Dee as an eight-year-old, but the sight of the old boy would probably make me gag at 63. And so it goes with clothing, choice of good reads, and, of course photography.
One of the things it’s prudent to do over the years is to take the temperature of present-day You, to really differentiate what that person wants in an image, versus what seemed essential at other stages in your life. I know that, in my case, my favorite photographers of fifty years ago bear very little resemblance to the ones I see as signposts today.
As a boy, I was in love with technical perfection and a very literal form of storytelling. Coming up in an artist’s household, I saw photos as illustrations, that is, subservient to some kind of text. I chose books for their pictures, yes, but for how well they visualized the writing in those books. The house was chock full of the mass-appeal photo newsmagazines of that day, from Life to Look to National Geographic to the Saturday Evening Post, periodicals that chose pictures for how well they completed the stories they decorated. A picture-maker for me, then, basically a writer’s assistant.
By my later school years, I began, slowly, to see photographs as statements unto themselves, something beyond language. They were no longer merely aids to understanding a writer’s position, but separate, complete entities, needing no intro, outro or context. The pictures didn’t have to be “about” anything, or if they were, it wasn’t a thing that was necessarily literal or narrative. Likewise, the kind of pictures I was interested in making seemed, increasingly, to be unanchored from reference points. Some people began to ask me, “why’d you make a picture of that?” or “why aren’t there any people in there?”
By this time in my life, I sometimes feel myself rebelling against having any kind of signature style at all, since I know that any such choice will eventually be shed like snake-skin in deference to some other thing I’ll deem important. For a while. What this all boils down to is that the journey has become more important than the destination, at least for my photography. What I learn is often more important than what I do about it.
And some days, I actually hope I never get where I’m going.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHIC HISTORIANS WILL PROBABLY CRINGE AT MY OVER-SIMPLIFICATION, but I tend to believe that still-life compositions were originally popular to shooters because they solved a technical problem. At the dawn of the imaging art, recording media, from salted paper to glass plates, were so abysmally slow that exposure times stretched, in some cases, to nearly an hour. This meant that subject matter with any kinetic quality, from evolving landscapes to a baby’s face, were rendered poorly compared to inanimate objects. Still lifes were not so much about the beauty and color of fruit and cheese on a plate as they were about practicing…learning how to harness light and deliver a desired effect.
As film and lenses both sped up, a still life could be chosen purely on its aesthetic appeal, but the emphasis was still on generating a “realistic” image…an imitation of life. The 20th century cured both photography and painting of that narrow view, and now a still life, at least to me, offers the chance to transform mundane material, to force the viewer to re-imagine it. You can do this with various processes and approaches, but the main appeal to me is the chance to toss the object out of its native context and allow it to be anything…or nothing.
In the image at left, the home-grown vegetables, seen in their most natural state, actually have become alien to our pre-packaged notions of nutrition. They don’t even look like what arrives at many “organic” markets, much less the estranged end-product from Green Giant or Freshlike. And so we are nearly able to see these vegetables as something else. Weeds? Flowers? Decay? Design? Photographing them in our own way, we are free to assign nearly any quality to them. They might, for example, be suggestive of a floral bouquet, a far cry from the edibles we think we know. Still life compositions can startle when they are less “still” and more “life”, but we have to get away from our subjects and approach them around their blind side.
As always, it’s not what we see, but how.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE BEST SELLER LIST IS THE FASTEST WAY to cement a notion in the public’s mind as indisputable “fact”. We are great at quoting a concept captured in print, then re-quoting the quote, until the “truthfulness” of it becomes plausible. It’s basically a version of the statement, “everybody knows that..” followed by a maxim from whatever hardcover pundit is top in the rotation at a given moment. And it’s about as far from accuracy as you can get.
Ever since pop-psych guru Malcolm Gladwell’s hit book Outliers arrived on shelves a few years back, its main thesis, which is that you need 10,000 hours of practice to become excellent at something, has been trotted out a thousand times to remind everyone to just keep nose to grindstone and, well, practice will make perfect. Gladwell cites Bill Gates’ concentrated stretch of garage tinkering and the Beatles’ months of all-night stands in Hamburg as proof of this fact, and, heck, since it ought to be true, we assume it is.
However, it’s not so true as it is comfortable, and, when it comes to photography, I would never hint that someone could become an excellent artist just by putting in more time shooting than everyone else. If my method is wrong, if I never develop a vision of any kind, or if I merely replicate the same mistakes for the requisite practice period, then I am going to get to my goal older, but not wiser. Time spent, all by itself, is no indication of anything, except time spent. Evolving, constantly learning from negative feedback, and learning how to be your own worst critic are all better uses of the years than just filling out some kind of achievement-based time card.
The perfection of photography is about time, certainly, and you must invest a good deal of it to allow for the mistakes and failures that are inevitable with the acquiring of any skill. But, you must also stir insight, humility, curiosity and daring into the recipe or the end result is just mediocrity. Gladwell’s magical 10,000 hours, a quantity measurement, is only miraculous when coupled with an accompanying quality of work.
There are people who know how to express their soul on their first click of the shutter, just as there are those who slog away for decades and get no closer to imparting anything. It’s how well you learn, not how long you stay in school. It ain’t comforting, but it’s true.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MARKETING BEING WHAT IT IS, CAMERA MANUFACTURERS HAVE LONG TOLD US THEY ARE DOING ONE THING FOR US when they are actually doing something very different. Since the first furry, day-long exposures of the 1800’s gave us a taste of what an entirely new medium could do in the way of chronicling the world, we have been promised that, over succeeding generations of technical development, taking a picture would get easier. In fact, this is a little inaccurate, as what the wizards have mostly done is to make taking a picture faster.
If this sounds like I’m splitting a sub-atomic-sized hair, hear me out. Many of the refinements in camera design over the last century and a half have, of course, improved the sharpness of lenses, the absorbance quotient of recording media, and enhanced design. However, the lion’s share of reboots have been to require fewer steps in framing and shooting, through increasing auto-delegating of many functions to smarter and smarter cameras. But, what we basically gain by this process is speed. It certainly takes much less time to shoot and get an acceptable result as the years roll by. “Well”, you may well ask, “doesn’t that mean the whole process is also easier?”
Tricky question, as it turns out.
In that you can take technically better images with less effort the further we roll along, then yes, it’s “easier”. But the same speed which is part of the “easy” process also means that we spend less time planning a picture, seeing it in our minds and creating it with deliberate action…cause, you know, the camera will do it. This means that it’s also easy to miss things, to fail to visualize the best way to take a shot versus the most expedient way. Slowing down by adding steps into the creation of a photograph means taking back control, so it is, if you will, “harder”, but, with practice of the total process of photographing, the ease, and even the speed all comes back anyway.
I wanted the name of this blog to contain a subtitle about journeying from taking to making images because that is the trek that most photographers eventually set out on. We begin to wonder what it would be like to be more completely in charge of what kind of pictures we wind up with, even if it’s only to take a series of baby steps. It does take more time to take the process into your own hands. But it’s not that hard. Auto-settings save you time, but they may not save your shot. Choosing the inconvenient isn’t ignoring technology. It’s making it work your will with your pictures.