By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU WOULD SUPPOSE that sustained, intimate contact with a photographic subject would inevitably lead to a superior, if not perfect rendering of that subject in an image. And supposing further that said subject is a person, you’d assume that one’s close bond with the subject couldn’t fail to produce the ultimate visual depiction of that person….a glimpse into their very essence.
Or so you’d suppose.
There is a reason why so many shooters pursue the same faces, many belonging to dear friends or loved ones, over a lifetime of picture-making….never quite able to reduce a face to its essence or its definitive “version”. It’s not that they don’t yet know enough about that particular arrangement of shapes and features. It’s that they know too much to settle for any single interpretation of them.
No sooner does the face of the Dear One display a given mood or aspect than it shifts like an active weather front to a completely different mix of elements. Faces are selves arrested in mid-flight, and, being in constant motion, rob us of the picture we originally set out to capture, only to bestow a fresh one on us. The “new” person we now see is, certainly, the same individual, but changed enough that we are off on a completely different mission, visually speaking. That is both frustrating and fulfilling.
The slices of persona that we freeze in the camera are just that: shifting glimpses. That means that, unlike pictures of monuments or mountains, they can’t be “done” in any permanent way. Add to this the change in how we all relate to each other over time, and it makes perfect sense to refresh our view of the most familiar faces an infinite number of times.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
OKAY, I JUST REALIZED HOW GROSSLY MISLEADING THE TITLE OF THIS POST COULD SEEM, but, trust me, I never meant it the way it sounds. I was just struggling to find a phrase for the kind of photograph in which a person is as private as possible while on full display to the world at large. There are behaviors that are intensely personal and astonishingly public at the same time, and such events in a human being’s life are rife, for the photographer, with a very singular kind of drama.
We like to think of ourselves as sufficiently camouflaged behind the carefully crafted mask that we present for the public’s consumption, all the better to preserve our sense of privacy. But there are always cracks in the mask, fleeting signals at the raw life underneath. Learning to detect those cracks is the talent of the street photographer, whose eye is always trained beyond the obvious.
Mourning, Joy, Discovery…all these things provide a teeter-totter balance between public display and private truth. The primal basics of life bring that juggling act into view, and, as a photographer, I am often surprised how much of them is in evidence in the simple act of nourishing ourselves. Dining would seem, on the surface, to be all about simple survival. Eating to live, and all that. But meals are laden with ritual and habit, the most hard-wired parts of one’s personality. Food gathers people for so much more than mere sustenance. It is memory, community, religion, friendship, negotiation, reassurance, replenishment. It is a symbol for life (and its passing), a trigger for shared experience, a talisman, a consecration.
Case in point: the man and woman in the above image were seen in a Los Angeles restaurant late on a Saturday night. Their relationship would seem to be that of mother and son, but it could be grandmother and nephew, son-in-law and mother-in-law, or a dozen other arrangements. A sharp contrast is provided by their comparative ages and physicality. One sits upright, while the other sits as well as she can. There is no eye contact….but does that necessarily mean that they do not want to see each other? There is no conversation. Has everything already been said? Are they grateful to still be there for each other after all these years, or is this the fulfillment of an obligation, a visitation occasioned by guilt?
Eating is a microcosmic examination of everything that it means to be human. So much for a single photographic frame to try to capture. So many ways of looking into the publicness of privacy.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
BIRTHDAYS HAVE BECOME SOMETHING OF A CONUNDRUM AT MY AGE. The annual ritual of looking yourself over, and thereby taking some kind of critical inventory of personality debits and credits, has become a little like finding an old favorite shirt in a drawer. On one hand, it’s horribly out of fashion, and may not fit so well anymore. On the other hand, you had some great times in it, and it was really well made….I mean look at the quality in the fabric…….
And so, after a few loving looks, back in the drawer it goes.
There are so many yardsticks to apply to a life, so many ways to mark distance run. You can produce either smiles or sighs with any of them. Of course, I’d like to weigh less. Of course, I’d like to know more. And when it comes to photography, of course I’d like to be able to invoke a thirty-year mortality extension clause, in the hope that maybe, just maybe, I’d eventually learn to see as I should, before shuffling off to The Undiscovered Country.
In recent years, I’ve used self-portraits as some kind of mile marker on myself, either as an index of technique, or maybe just a detailed document of wear and tear. It’s somewhat related to the annual torture that used to be School Picture Day, except that there’s no creepy guy to give me a lame nickname and hand me a plastic pocket comb. Another key difference is that I can keep shooting until my eyes are open and my cowlick behaves.
So, anyway, tomorrow, I’ll waddle my way past “GO” and collect my $200. Someone will once again stick something with a lit candle in front of me, and, once again, I will experience that all too human mix between gratitude and regret that makes humanity the ultimate sweet-and-sour entrée. I’ve been around from Brownies to Instamatics to Polaroids to iPhones, and it’s been a privilege to behold it all. And, if I’ve produced even one visual document to suggest to anyone else how marvelously grand the world is, then it’s been a pretty good run. It’s nice to be around.
Hey, did they take taxes out of this $200????
By MICHAEL PERKINS
The mystery isn’t in the technique. It’s in each of us.
THE AMERICAN PHOTOGRAPHER HARRY CALLAHAN , author of the above quotation, knew about the subject of mystery, especially as it regarded women. Make that one woman, namely his wife Eleanor, who posed for Callahan’s camera for sixty-three years in every kind of setting from abstracts to nudes and back again, providing him with his most enduring muse.
I know exactly how he felt. Because I feel the same way about my own wife, Marian.
Interpreting and re-interpreting a single face over time is one of the best ways I can imagine to train your eye to detect small changes, crucial evolutions in both your subject and your own sense of seeing. And Marian has given me that gift during our time together, as her features seem, to me, to be an inexhaustible source of exploration. It’s a face that is equal parts tenderness and iron resolve, a perfect balance between joy and tragedy, a wellspring of sensations. It is a great face, a great woman’s face, and a fascinating workspace.
Working as I always am to make her relax and forget herself when I am framing her up, I have long since abandoned the practice of announcing that I was going to take her photograph. There is never any posing or sitting. I approach her the way I would a stranger on the street. I wait for the moment when her face is in the act of becoming, than sneak off with whatever I can steal. Sometimes it takes a little more stealth than I am comfortable with, but my motives are simple; I don’t want the mechanics of photography to block what is coming from that face.
Phone conversations are my best friends, as they seem to magically suspend her self-consciousness and her awareness of the schmuck with the camera. And every once in a while, in viewing the results, she bestows my favorite compliment:
“That one’s not too bad…”
For praise like that, I’ll follow a face anywhere. Because the mystery isn’t in the technique.
It’s in all of her.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE TITLE OF THIS POST IS ONE OF MY FAVORITE LINES IN ALL OF BOB DYLAN’S PRODIGIOUS OUTPUT, coming from The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest, on the John Wesley Harding album. I often pop the phrase into casual conversations where it’s clear that more heat, rather than light, has been generated. Nothing to see here, folks. No new ground has been broken. No fresh truth has been unearthed.
Nothing is revealed.
This phrase came back to me a while back when looking at the raw statistics for Instagram, which indicates that, currently, over 90,000,000 images on the foto-share service currently bear the hashtag “#me”. Call them selfies, call them an epidemic of narcissism, call them banal.
But don’t, for the love of God, call them portraits.
How has it come to this? How can merely pointing a phone camera back at your own punim, and saturating it with distortion and over-amped flash, pass for a telling testament to who you are, what you dream, what you represent in the world?
Of course, the tselfie tsunami does none of these things. It actually puts distance, if not actual barriers, between your real self and the world, by creating some lifeless avatar to ward off true discovery of yourself by, well, anyone. By comparison, even the four-for-a-quarter snaps of antique photo booths are searing documents of truth.
Photography’s evolution is illuminated by the great masters who stepped in front of their own cameras
to try to give testimony, recording innovative, penetrating evidence of who they were. Currently, a show featuring one of the medium’s greatest pioneers in this area, Julia Margaret Cameron, is packing them in at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and with good reason. Cameron’s attempts to capture herself in not only natural but fantastic settings led the way for interpretive portraitists from Richard Avedon to Annie Liebowitz. Along the way, she learned what to look for, and immortalize, in the faces of others, including Alfred Lord Tennyson, Charles Darwin, Robert Browning, and other bright lights of the 19th century.
Oddly, none of her work was done by crooking her arm 90 degrees back toward her booze-flushed face at a kegger and saying “cheese.”
I’ve written before, in these pages, of the real value of self-portraits as a teaching tool and experimental lab for photographic technique. By contrast, “Selfies” are false faces created to keep the world away, not invite it in. And they remind us, courtesy of Bobby D., of the three worse words of insult that can ever be aimed at any photograph, anywhere:
Nothing is revealed.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.
- Portraits by Julia Margaret Cameron, One of Photography’s Early Masters, on Display at the Met (muirhousepubs.wordpress.com)
- Julia Margaret Cameron: Pioneer of Modern Glamour Photography? (bigthink.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE HUMAN RACE TAKES MORE PHOTOGRAPHS EVERY TWO MINUTES, TODAY, THAN WERE CAPTURED DURING THE ENTIRE 19th CENTURY. As staggering as that statistic is, it’s even more amazing on a personal level, when we contemplate how many of those gazillions of images involve our children, as we chase the ever-elusive goal of pictorially documenting (or so it seems) every second of their existence. Not only are we constantly on the job as shooters, our young ones must also be forever “on”, delivering camera-ready smiles and cherubic cuteness on cue.
With this in mind, it’s no wonder that kids actually evolve an alter ego to use for these “candid” moments after a while. Patented smiles, standby poses, a whole little system of default settings for quick use when Mom and Dad are in click mode. So, paradoxically, we are taking more and more pictures that reveal less and less about our children…..actually pushing their personalities further and further from discovery.
It’s tricky. And the results of our efforts actually count for more as time goes on, as traditional children’s portrait studios at department stores, malls, etc., are closing their doors. Increasingly, the pictures that we take of our kids are the ones which provide the most definitive chronicle of their most important years.
Point a camera at a child and he will try to give you what you want. But let him know it’s all right to inject himself into the process, and you will be amazed at the difference in the end product.
I recently took a series of informal portraits of several packs of Girl Scouts at a museum. They were told that they could use any of a variety of costume accents and musical instruments to create their own concept of the artists they saw on exhibit on their tour. Some of the girls organically assumed another identity completely, rock goddess, cowgirl, bluesy diva, and so on. Others stood frozen, as if waiting for me or someone “official” to tell them “what to do”. The hardest shots were the group portraits of the individual troops. The first frame was always stiff, awkward, like bankers at First National posing for a company picture in 1910.
However, simply by my saying just a few words like, “now act like you want to”, or, “now, act crazy”, the formal camera faces were stripped away, with truly great results. Arms on hips: attitude: dance poses: defiance.
I didn’t tell them what kind of pose to give me. I didn’t have to. They knew.
A camera can be a momentary intruder in a child’s busy day, but it doesn’t have to be. And photos of our children can actually show the magic behind the mechanical smile. However, the request that a kid show you something real must be a sincere one. And you have to be ready when the moment comes.
Getting beyond “smile” is the beginning of something wonderful.
(Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE DEPICTION OF THE FACES OF THOSE WE LOVE IS AMONG THE MOST DIVISIVE QUESTIONS IN PHOTOGRAPHY. Since the beginning of the medium, thoughts on how to capture them “best” clearly fall into two opposing camps. In one corner, the feeling that we must idealize, glamorize, venerate the features of those most special in our lives. In the other corner, the belief that we should capture faces as effects of time and space, that is, record them, without seeking to impose standards of grace or beauty on what is in front of the lens. This leads us to see faces as objects among other objects.
The first, more cosmetic view of faces, which calls for ideal lighting, a flattering composition, a little “sweetening” in the taking, will always be the more popular view, and its resultant images will always be cherished for emotionally legitimate reasons. The second view is, let’s “face” it, a hard sell. You have to be ready for a set series of responses from your subjects, usually including:
Don’t take me. I just got up.
God, I look so old. Delete that.
I hate having my picture taken.
That doesn’t even look like me.
Of course, since no one is truly aware of what they “look like”, there is always an element of terror in having a “no frills” portrait taken. God help me, maybe I really do look like that. And most of us don’t want to push to get through people’s defenses. It’s uncomfortable. It’s awkward. And, in this photo-saturated world, it’s a major trick to get people to drop their instinctive masks, even if they want to.
As I visually measure the advance of age on my living parents (both 80+ ) and have enough etchings on my own features to mirror theirs, I am keener than ever to avoid limiting my images of us all to mere prettiness. I am particularly inspired by photographers who actually entered into a kind of understanding with their closest life partners to make a sort of document out of time’s effects. Two extreme examples: Richard Avedon’s father and Annie Leibovitz’ partner Susan Sontag were both documented in their losing battles with age and disease as willing participants in a very special relationship with very special photographers….arrangements which certainly are out of the question for many of us. And yet, there is so much to be gained by making a testament of sorts out of even simple snaps. This was an important face in my life, the image can say, and here is how it looked, having survived more than 3/4 of a century. Such portraits are not to be considered “right” or “wrong” against more conventional pictures, but they should be at least a part of the way we mark human lives.
Everyone has to decide their own comfort zone, and how far it can be extended. But I think we have to stretch a bit. Pictures of essentially beautiful people who, at the moment the shutter snaps, haven’t done up their hair, put on their makeup, or conveniently lost forty pounds. People in less than perfect light, but with features which have eloquent statements and truths writ large in their every line and crevice. We should also practice on ourselves, since our faces are important to other people, and ours, like theirs, are going to go away someday.
In trying to record these statements and truths, mere flattery will get us nowhere. The camera has an eye to see; let’s take off the rose-colored filter, at least for a few frames.
- The Great Richard Avedon (sandroesposito.wordpress.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
A COMMONLY HELD VIEW OF SELF-PORTRAITURE is that it epitomizes some kind of runaway egotism, an artless symbol of a culture saturated in narcissistic navel-gazing. I mean, how can “us-taking-a-picture-of-us” qualify as anything aesthetically valid or “pure”? Indeed, if you look at the raw volume of quickie arm’s length shots that comprise the bulk of self-portrait work, i.e., here’s me at the mountains, here’s me at the beach, etc., it’s hard to argue that anything of our essence is revealed by the process of simply cramming our features onto a view screen and clicking away…..not to mention the banality of sharing each and every one of these captures ad nauseum on any public forum available. If this is egotism, it’s a damned poor brand of it. If you’re going to glorify yourself, why not choose the deluxe treatment over the economy class?
I would argue that self-portraits can be some of the most compelling images created in photography, but they must go beyond merely recording that we were here or there, or had lunch with this one or that one. Just as nearly everyone has one remarkable book inside them, all of us privately harbor a version of ourselves that all conventional methods of capture fail to detect, a visual story only we ourselves can tell. However, we typically carry ourselves through the world shielded by a carapace of our own construction, a social armor which is designed to keep invaders out, not invite viewers in. This causes cameras to actually aid in our camouflage, since they are so easy to lie to, and we have become so self-consciously expert at providing the lies.
The portraits of the famous by Annie Liebovitz, Richard Avedon, Herb Ritts and other all-seeing eyes (see links to articles below) have struck us because they have managed to penetrate the carapace, to change the context of their subjects in such dramatic ways that they convince us that we are seeing them, truly seeing them, for the first time. They may only be doing their own “take” on a notable face, but this only makes us hunger after more interpretations on the theme, not fewer. Key to many of the best portraits is the location of their subjects within specific spaces to see how they and the spaces feed off each other. Sometimes the addition of a specific object or prop creates a jumping off point to a new view. Often a simple reassignment of expression (the clown as tragedian, the adult as child, etc) forces a fresh perspective.
As for the self-portrait, an artistic assignment that I feel everyone should perform at least once (as an intentional design, not a candid snap), there is a wealth of new information gleaned from even an indifferent result. Shooters can act as lab rats for all the ways of seeing people that we can think of to play at, serving as free training modules for light, exposure, composition, form. I am always reluctant to enter into these projects, because like everyone else, I balk at the idea of centering my expression on myself. Who, says my Catholic upbringing, do I think I am, that I might be a fit subject for a photograph? And what do I do with all the social conditioning that compels me to sit up straight, suck in my gut, and smile in a friendly manner?
One can only wonder what the great figures of earlier centuries might have chosen to pass along about themselves if the self-portrait has existed for them as it does for us. What could the souls of a Lincoln, a Jefferson, a Spinoza, an Aquinas, have said to us across the gulf of time? Would this kind of introspection been seen by them as a legacy or an exercise in vanity? And would it matter?
In the above shot, taken in a flurry of attempts a few days ago, I am seemingly not “present” at the proceedings, apparently lost in thought instead of engaging the camera. Actually, given the recent events in my life, this was the one take where I felt I was free of the constraints of smiling, posing, going for the shot, etc. I look like I can’t focus, but in catching me in the attempt to focus, this image might be the only real one in the batch. Or not. I may be acting the part of the tortured soul because I like the look of it. The point is, at this moment, I have chosen what to depict about myself. Accept or reject it, it’s my statement, and my attempt to use this platform to say something, on purpose. You and I can argue about whether I succeeded, but maybe that’s all art is, anyway.
- Avedon For Breakfast (fabsugar.com)
- Getty Center Exhibits Herb Ritts and Celebrity Portraits (ginagenis.wordpress.com)
- Annie Leibovitz: ‘Creativity is like a big baby that needs to be nourished’ (guardian.co.uk)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE BEST TECHNIQUE is one that does not scream for attention like a neon t-shirt emblazoned with the phrase LOOK WHAT I DID.
Now, of course, we are all messing around backstage, working hard to make the elephant disappear. We all manipulate light. We all nudge nature in the direction we’d prefer that she go. But what self-respecting magician wants to get caught pulling the rabbit out of a hole in the table?
I recently had the perfect low-light solution handed to me as I watched a young designer working in a dim room, and, thankfully, only marginally aware of my presence. “Lighting 101” dictated that, to get a sense of her intense concentration, I send the most important light right to her face.
Turns out, a light tracer screen, in a pinch, makes a perfect softbox.
Better yet, the light from the screen thinned out and dampened after it traveled left past her shoulders, leaving just enough illumination to keep the rest of the frame from falling off completely into black, making the face the lone story-teller. An ISO bump to 640 and a white balance tweak were enough to grab the best of what the screen had to give. At this point in the “gift from the gods” process, you click, and promise, in return, to live a moral life.
Sometimes you don’t have to do anything extra to make a thing look like it actually was. That’s better than finding a hundred-dollar bill on the street.
What was your best light luck-out?