the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Photo-journalism

RICH, TALENTED BOY MAKES GOOD

Jacques Henri Lartigue chronicled the gauzy, gay world of upper-class France in the early 1900's.

Jacques Henri Lartigue chronicled the gauzy, gay world of upper-class France in the early 1900’s.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE MOST APPEALING FEATURE OF EVERY NEW ART is that, for a while, everyone participating in it is an amateur. Because a new art has no history, it has no history-makers….no professionals, no celebrated artistes, no one who is doing it better. Everyone is, briefly, in the same “how-do-you-work-this-thing?” boat.

Of course, eventually, some ornery cuss or another begins to figure out how to progress from stumblebum to star, and then everyone’s off to the races. Photography, like other infant arts, began as a tinkerer’s toy, sprouting an occasional outlier genius here and there, until the pool was fairly crowded with People Trying To Make Their Mark. And one of those first mark-makers was not yet out of short pants when his pictures began to be the embodiment of the phrase “and a little child shall lead them.”

His name was Jacques Henri Lartigue, and, whatever else formed his strong visual sense, it certainly wasn’t the nobility of poverty, born, as he was, in 1894 in France to upper-class wealth and the privilege that went with it. His photographic muse thus contained none of those inspiring Lean, Hungry Years or Hard-won Real World Experiences that we associate with mature art; the kid was just born with an instinctually strong knack for composition, and what he chose to compose just happened to be the activities of the Rich and Famous….in other words, everyone he hung out with.

Lartigue's social set were the racers and aviators of the sleek new century.

Lartigue’s social set were the racers and aviators of the sleek new century.

Lartigue’s social set was the class every other social set in France aspired to; the people who seasoned at the Rive Gauche, the people who competed in lawn tennis tournaments, the country’s first race car drivers and aviators. Armed with a simple gift camera, and taught processing by his father, Jacques began snapping the world around him at age seven, maintaining journals that contextualized the images, bookmarking his family’s gilded role in the newborn twentieth century.

Gifted with an eye for photographic narrative, Lartigue nevertheless segued into painting, where he spent virtually his entire adult life. In fact, it was not until a friend showed some of Jacques’ photos to John Szarkowski, director of photography at the New York Museum of Modern Art, that Lartigue had his first formal photographic exhibition, in 1963, when he was sixty-nine.The show led to international recognition of his untutored yet undeniable talent, as well as a few prize portrait commissions and a second social career with the same elite one-percenters with whom he had rubbed elbows as a boy. One of his final collections, Diary Of A Century, was published in cooperation with Richard Avedon in 1978. He died a late-blooming “overnight success” at ninety-two.

What began for Jacques Henri Lartigue as family snapshots became one of the most important chronicles of a vanished world, and thus the best kind of photojournalism (or sociology, depending on your college major). For shooters, this boy of privilege remains the romantic ideal of the talented amateur.


FOR A LIMITED TIME ONLY

The Graf Zeppelin cruises over the great pyramids at Giza.

When Worlds Collide: The Graf Zeppelin cruises over the great pyramids at Giza, 1931.

BY MICHAEL PERKINS

ONCE WE WERE ABLE TO CAPTURE LIGHT IN A BOX, in the earliest days of photography, there seemed to be a worldwide obsession with recording things before they could vanish. Painters might linger in a wistful sunset over a craggy shoreline, and certainly that was part of the photographer’s prerogative as well, but, immediately following the introduction of the first semi-portable cameras, there was a concurrent surge in the recording of the ancient world…temples, churches, monuments, pyramids, waterfalls, Africa, Asia, empires new and old.

The nineteenth century saw an explosion in the number of world tours available to at least the wealthy, as seen in The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain’s chronicling of a global excursion of Americans to the venerable ports of the old world. Cartes-de-visites (later post cards), stereoscopic views and leather-bound books of armchair photo anthologies sold in the millions, and the first great urban photographers like Eugene Atget began to “preserve” the vanishing elements of their world, from Paris to Athens, for posterity and, quite often, for profit.

This first-generation fever among shooters carried forth through two World Wars, the Great Depression, and into the journalistic coverage of revolutions and disasters seen in the present day. The photographer is aware that this is all going away, and that bearing witness to its disappearance is important. We can’t help but realize that the commonplace is on its way to becoming the rare, and eventually the extinct. We can’t know what things we regard as banal will eventually assume the importance of the contents of the pharaoh’s tombs. Ramses’ everyday toilet items become our priceless treasures. Now, however, instead of sealing up pieces of the world in pyramids, we imprison the light patterns of it, with history alone to judge its value.

Making pictures is taking measure of our world. It is our voice preserved for another time. This is what we looked like. This is what we thought was important. This shows the distance of our journey. New worlds are always crowding out old ones. Photography slows that process so we can see where one curtain comes down and another rises.


“GEE”-EYE JOE

Joe McNally, the artist, the legend, the Irish street kid.

Joe McNally, the artist, the legend, the Irish street kid.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IT’S NOT UNFAIR TO ARGUE THAT MOST MAJOR PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE FAR MORE ELOQUENT with their lenses than with their tongues. The fact that their eyes speak volumes is what distinguishes them as artists, not whatever quick quips they may toss off about why they do what they do. There are a few shooters per generation, however, who really add to the art by sharing the motivations that accompany the making of it. Joe McNally is one such photographer.

Joe, whose work ranges from National Geographic, Life, and Sports Illustrated to his groundbreaking Faces Of Ground Zero, speaks not as a pristine philosopher, but as the grizzled, hard-boiled, run-and-gun, reality-anchored pro that he is.  He knows deadlines. He knows the cigar-chomping breath of hate-crazed editors. He know what moves, both emotionally and commercially. And he has written two of the era’s best books (The Moment It Clicks and Hotshoe Diaries) on the real struggles that arise for the professional in the field. No esoteric essays. Just straight-from-the-shoulder truths from the world. A few Joe-isms to treasure forever:

No matter how much crap you gotta plow through to stay alive as a photographer, no matter how many bad assignments, bad days, bad clients, snotty subjects, obnoxious handlers, wigged-out art directors, technical disasters, failures of the mind, body, and will, all the shouldas, couldas, and wouldas that befuddle our brains and creep into our dreams, always remember to make room to shoot what you love. It’s the only way to keep your heart beating as a photographer.

or:  I can’t tell you how many pictures I’ve missed, ignored, trampled, or otherwise lost just ‘cause I’ve been so hell bent on getting the shot I think I want.

This is the voice of a guy who’s been stomped on, crowded out, smashed up and beaten silly in the cause of a picture. This is a go-to guy when you want to learn about how to make tough calls and hard choices. And it’s the indefatigable spirit of photography telling you that, however you go out, don’t come back in without the picture. That means to always be looking, and to always be ready, and willing to:

Put it to your eye. You never know. There are lots of reasons, some of them even good, to just leave it on your shoulder or in your bag. Wrong lens. Wrong light. Aaahhh, it’s not that great, what am I gonna do with it anyway? I’ll have to put my coffee down. I’ll just delete it later, why bother? Lots of reasons not to take the dive into the eyepiece and once again try to sort out the world into an effective rectangle. It’s almost always worth it to take a look.

And how does he shoot? Twice as good as he talks. Photographers need, always, to reject comfort, familiarity, habit, ease. Joe’s “Gee” eye reminds us to stay hungry.

And stay on the job.


EYE ON THE STARS

Is this an image of hope or despair? Depends on how it's conceived and executed.

Is this an image of hope or despair? Depends on how it’s conceived and executed.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

Two men looked out from prison bars; one saw mud, and the other saw stars.–proverb attributed to Dale Carnegie

PHOTOGRAPHY WAS ONLY SEVERAL DECADES OLD WHEN IT WAS FIRST PRESSED INTO SERVICE to chronicle the world’s great comings and goings. The 19th century’s primitive print technology delayed the arrival of news photographs in the popular press for a while, but, once rotogravures and other methods caught up with the camera, the dizzying daily mix of wars, crimes, fancies and foibles that we call news began to be “illustrated” by photos, and we have never looked back since. If photography has a mission in the world, we came to believe, it is to use its unblinking eye to catch humanity in the act of behaving, well, like humanity. That reportorial bent, born in the 1800’s, still places a similar burden, by extension, on all photographers. We are supposed to Reveal The Facts, Get At The Truth, and Bear Witness.

So-called “street photography” has its roots in the works of crusading pioneers like Jacob Riis, the reporter turned photographer whose stark depiction of Manhattan slum life in the book How The Other Half Lives moved fellow reformers like Teddy Roosevelt to take action against that city’s brutal poverty. All these decades later, we place a certain trust in images that show the seamier or harsher side of life. Even those of us who aren’t officially campaigning to make the world a better place click off millions of “real” images of gritty cities, abandoned people, or hopeless conditions. We tend to regard these images as more authentic than the ones we create of things that poetic, or beautiful.

But this is a flawed viewpoint. We can, if we choose, look through the bars and see only the mud. But that doesn’t mean that marveling at the stars is any less important, or that beholding the beautiful is somehow a frivolous or non-serious pursuit. In fact, we need beauty to keep our souls from being crushed and rendering ourselves useless to do anything noble or good. Beauty is a template, a blueprint for the fulfillment of life, and we can’t even measure how far we’ve wandered toward the mud unless we know the distance we are from the stars.

Photography is “for” beauty, just as it is “for” everything else in human experience. We can, and should, be moved by cracked windows and wrecked alleys, to be sure, but it is our knowledge of the lark and the mountain that remind us why ugliness offends us. The fuller we are as humans, the better we are as photographers.

Don’t ignore the mud. That would be stupid. But keep your eyes, both yours and your camera’s, on the stars as well.


I’M DREAMING OF A ‘CHROME CHRISTMAS

All The Trimmings, 2013. 1/160 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

All The Trimmings, 2013. 1/160 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IF YOU HAVE BEEN ON THE PLANET FOR MORE THAN FIFTY CHRISTMASES, your holiday memories (at least those frozen in family snapshots) will include more than a few black and white images. Some families made the switch to color photography earlier than others, but, at least until the mid-1960’s, for millions of us, more than a few “our best tree ever” photos were shot in monochrome. A little web research or family album-browsing can illustrate just how well beloved memories were captured by millions of us, long before Kodachrome became the visual currency of family folklore.

It’s interesting to note that, with the universal availability of not only simple cameras but post-processing apps, there’s been a sort of retro-fed love of b&w that’s refreshing, given that we are, once again, admitting that some subjects can be wonderfully rendered in a series of greyscale tones. Certainly the general marketing and depiction of the season is a color-drenched one, but many new photographers are re-discovering the art of doing more with less, or, more properly, seeing black and white as an interpretation of reality rather, as in the case of color, as a recording of it.

Observing the season out in the American West, thousands of miles from loved ones, I find that my holiday shots are increasingly journalistic or “street” in nature, since I am viewing and interpreting other people’s Christmases. The contours and designs of retail become a vibrant source of stories for me, and black and white allows me to shoot at an emotionally safe distance while calling special attention to texture and detail.

Depending on whether you’re showing the splendor of food and presents or evoking some Dickens-era urban grit, some subjects will come up flat or drab in black and white, given our very specific memory cues as to what Christmas should “look like”, so getting the desired result may be elusive. But, of course, if photography was easy, everyone would do it.

Oh, wait, everybody does do it.

Thing is, you always add another voice to the creative conversation. That’s the best part of both photography and the holidays.

No way is best but your way.


DO SOMETHING MEANINGLESS

The subject matter doesn't make the photograph. You do. A pure visual arrangement of nothing in particular can at least teach you composition. 1/400 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

The subject matter doesn’t make the photograph. You do. A pure visual arrangement of nothing in particular can at least teach you composition. 1/400 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

SHOOT WHAT YOU KNOW. SHOOT WHAT YOU LOVE. Those sentences seem like the inevitable “Column A” and “Column B” of photography. And it makes a certain kind of sense. I mean, you’ll make a stronger artistic connection to subject matter that’s near and dear, be it loved ones or beloved hobbies, right? What you know and what you love will always make great pictures, right?

Well….okay, sorta. And sorta not. 

I hate to use the phrase “familiarity breeds contempt”, but your photography could actually take a step backwards if it is always based in your comfort zone. Your intimate knowledge of the people or things you are shooting could actually retard or paralyze your forward development, your ability to step back and see these very familiar things in unfamiliar ways.

Might it not be a good thing, from time to time, to photograph something that is meaningless to you, to seek out images that don’t have any emotional or historical context for you? To see a thing, a condition, a trick of the light just for itself, devoid of any previous context is to force yourself to regard it cleanly, without preconception or bias.

Looking for things to shoot that are “meaningless” actually might force you to solve technique problems just for the sake of solving, since the results don’t matter to you personally, other than as creative problems to be solved. I call this process “pureformance” and I believe it is the key to breathing new life into one’s tired old eyes. Shooting pure forms guarantees that your vision is unhampered by habit, unchained from the familiarity that will eventually stifle your imagination.

This way of approaching subjects on their own terms is close to what photojournalists do all the time. They have little say in what they will be assigned to show next. Their subjects will often be something outside their prior experience, and could be something they personally find uninteresting, even repellent. But the idea is to find a story in whatever they approach, and they hone that habit to perfection, as all of us can.

Just by doing something meaningless in a meaningful way.