By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF PHOTOGRAPHER RICHARD AVEDON’S MOST PERSONAL (and most controversial) projects involved the documentation of the deterioration and death of his beloved father. In a similar vein, Annie Leibovitz chronicled her partner Susan Sontag’s brave but ultimately unsuccessful battle with cancer. Both series are riveting and heartbreaking, truly valiant attempts by artists to face the most terrifying aspect of life, namely its end. I admire both works, as I do many others that traffic in the same aims.
But I just can’t bring myself to photograph my own father (who turns ninety at this writing) in that way. It’s not that I lack the courage. Or the curiosity. I might even possess the clinical detachment it would require. But if photography has meant anything to me, it’s been about focusing on what’s most important. And the impending end of Dad’s life is of no importance, especially if compared to the quality of the life he has lived. I just can’t make despairing pictures of him. Not on purpose, anyway.
Technically, I could easily record tender, textured studies of how fragile his marvelously gifted artist’s hands have become. I could dwell endlessly on the inexorable appetite of time in robbing him of his balance, his eyesight, even, occasionally, his memory. But while any of those factors might produce pictures that were poignant, even eloquent, they would not be true to the spirit of the things that have animated and excited him over a lifetime. Ideas. Passions. Projects. A love of every manifestation of the artistic impulse, from the avalanche of books that littered every corner of our house to the lazy summer Sundays when he and I would lay on a sheet on the living room floor near the box fan, put My Fair Lady on the hi-fi, and be transported to 1910 London. Life is certainly, to a degree, about setbacks. But it’s also about being indomitable. Yes, that’s it. I’ve slung a lifetime of compliments in Dad’s direction, but indomitable is the word that finally sums him up. Hemingway once said that a man can be destroyed, but not defeated. God knows I’ve been around to see the world take a whack at accomplishing the former process. Gladly, I have never witnessed the latter. The trips down to the canvas don’t count. The journeys back up from the canvas do.
The image seen here began as an experiment with a particular art lens of mine. It’s based on selective focus, which means that you create pictures that actually conceal and much as they reveal. That means a less-than-reliable rendering of aged skin, a gauzy interpretation of the harder textures of aging. As for the sunglasses, while jaunty, they are not an attempt by the Chief to be cool but rather a very needful protection against over-loading his eyes with harsh light. And still, the overall affect, at least to me, is relaxed, comfortable. In this picture, I see no Sick Old Man. I see (or choose to see, maybe) an update on the dashing blockade runner I grew up with. The borderline shy smile, the posture of someone recalling a really good story. It’s the central nugget of his personality, which survives intact to this day, even if the machine that carries it around throws more cogs than it used to.
Photographs of such a man have to be resilient, even defiant. I grew up with too many instances of his quoting Dylan Thomas’ exhortation to “rage, rage, against the dying of the light” to snap pictures of him as weak or downhearted. And, of course, the man who loved that poem still bubbles up, even in conversations that are mostly about trouble or turmoil. Earlier this week, to change the subject from Time’s latest assaults on him and Mother, I mentioned that I had sent my sister “something you can use on your birthday.”
A pause, then:
“That’d be the motorcycle, right?”
“Yes”, I said, laughing with gratitude and relief, ” but I didn’t pop for the sidecar. I thought it would be too showy.”
Joe Cool was still on the job. And as for that Time Machine thing, you can take it and stick it.
Happy Birthday Daddy/Dad/Pop/Poppa/Daddy
THERE HAS BEEN A PERPETUAL ROMANCE, over the past two hundred years, between the arts of photography and live performance. The camera can’t look away at the magical moments when the transformation of play-acting takes place, and players can’t help inviting the camera to catch them at donning and doffing their various masks. This endless dance produces an infinite number of collisions between the two crafts, teasing miraculous moments from both.
However, when it comes to photographing performers, my perception is that, over decades, the bulk of the images we recall are of the finished product, the final on-stage result of all the unseen practice and prep that precedes showtime. I think this leaves half of the story untold, or at least under-told, because photos of the person that is dominant before the lights go up are no less dramatic, no less revelatory than the persona that springs to life at the opening of the curtain.
This was all brought home to me anew this week when I had the chance to snap some last-minute sound check shots of Celia Woodsmith, the one-woman power station that is the lead vocalist for the bluegrass-flavored band Della Mae. Like every other member of this all-female troupe, Celia makes a nightly metamorphosis from poet to party girl, worldly-wise dreamer to sassy force of nature, oftimes in the space of a single song. And yet the moments of silent concentration she displays in the last moments before the flag drops (see top image) is itself a profound thing, her face and form encompassing the emotions of every woman, just as her show self does, albeit in a completely different way.
Della Mae is one of the busiest bands in America, careening from weeklong festival gigs in the heartland to State Department-sponsored trips to the world’s hot spots, in years that often find them booked well past the 250-day mark. That’s a ton of transformation from pensive to explosive (see lower image). And the images to be harvested in those moments when performers toggle between selves can be sublime stuff, indeed.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS A SON, I am extremely aware that my parents are in the final innings of their particular ballgame, a journey they began nearly sixty-seven years ago and a pairing that has defined their lives along with those of countless others. And, as a photographer, I have come to realize that every phase of Mother and Dad’s time together has produced its own unique visual treasures and challenges.
The images that are made of them these days….congratulatory parties, miraculous birthdays, mythic anniversaries….are repeats of similar occasions spanning decades, even as they are also emotional re-castings of old roles. Such pictures are both records of what has been and chronicles of what remains. For both Mother and Dad, steps do indeed come slower these days, but memories still move at light speed. Physical age and emotional wisdom conduct an ongoing tug-of-war across all their days. Making photographs of this process is tricky.
I know that, when my camera is too visibly present, it creates discomfort for them. For a variety of reasons that may include merely being over it all, they are not keen on the idea of “sitting for portraits”. I can best respect this by seizing other kinds of moments, in other kinds of ways.
Recently, I caught a very lucky break, when they both went to their kitchen window to look over their beloved back yard, the acre lot resplendent with the tree plantings, deck buildings, and family events they’ve staged in it over more than a third of a century. Certainly, I don’t always instantly comprehend the value of a shot in the moment, but this one was obvious enough for even me.
There, in the moment, was the entire marriage in miniature: two people seeking, dreaming, discovering in tandem. No shy faces or self-conscious “say cheese” moments were needed to photograph their twinned hopes, their linked optimism. You can’t see their features, but these two people are unmistakably my parents.
Faces are remarkable documents, but they aren’t the only ones available to a photographer. That’s because there are a million tiny ways for humans to visually register emotional truth, a universe full of little grace moves that, singly or collectively, convey identity. My parents, like everyone’s, are eloquent, even when they do not stare into the camera to make their testimony.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
RENDERING THE HUMAN IN THE FULL CONTEXT OF THE WORLD is, for me, the one true way to produce a photographic portrait. Sitting someone in a nice room with flattering light and a serene atmosphere might be a formalized way to record a person’s features……but….
Yeah, that’s always the problem with pictures, innit? That insistent but. The part left unspoken. The case left unmade. The squirmy essence of personhood that stubbornly resists imprisonment in our little boxes. It’s quite revealing that, in trying to compliment someone on a portrait, we used to actually say, “I really think you’ve captured him”, as if “he” were a lightning bug in a jar. But such statements miss the very point of portraiture, even photography itself.
Photographs of people can’t be “one and done”, or “official”, or, God help us, “the last word”, any more than sunsets can. We aren’t making a document of a static thing, only serving up a time-slice of something that, by virtue of being in the world, is in constant flux.
To illustrate, the shot you see above is, for me, every bit as much a “portrait” of my wife (the one on the right) as any organized or traditional rendering of her face, because it shows her in the context of a world she inhabits: a world defined by nature, friendships, and animals. I don’t need her face to tell a story about her.
What people do is as telling as what they look like, and so it has to enter into any image-making about who they are.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
…..through his nightmare vision, he sees nothing…..blind with the beggar’s mind, he is but a stranger to himself –Winwood/Capaldi
GRINNING, FRIENDLY LIARS: that’s what most of us are when offering up a socially amenable mask for public conception as a photographic portrait. It’s the facial equivalent of “putting your best foot forward”, an official version of someone who possesses our features but is as different from our selves as, to quote Twain, lighting is from the lightning bug. So who should know that genuine person better, or can capture its reality more accurately than we ourselves? Right?
We (the ultimate authority on us), are usually among the least trustworthy of narrators on our favorite subject. Many a memoir is merely a selective reconstruction of one’s past, leaking credibility at every seam. So why should our photographic self-portraits be any more reliable? We believe that we can reveal things outsiders can’t see, that our “real” face can only be shown by our own hand….that the others don’t really “get” us. But what actually happens with the insane new flood of selfies washing over the digital shores is that we merely substitute one “correct” face…the one we give to other photographers…for another, no less crafted, no less artificial. We are still trying to concoct an image that we feel is fit for public consumption. And we invariably fail.
This is hardly a new trap. Photographers have been trying to tell their own facial stories for over two centuries, sure that their interpretation of their secret selves will succeed where other chroniclers fall short. But the best self-portraits are still abstractions, momentary samples of our personality, never the personality in full. Ironically, we might make pictures of our selves that we prefer over those others make of us. Perhaps they are technically better, more deliberate, more flattering, and so forth. And maybe we like the selves we shoot better because they actually conceal what we want to remain hidden, whereas the stranger’s eye is, in fact, too penetrating for our comfort.
Contemporary solutions to this legendary conundrum know no limit. Every shooter has his or her own approach to a statement of self in an image, with some choosing to deliberately camouflage or hide themselves, and other concocting very formalized creations that mock the idea of recognition while seeming to be “real”. In Jackie Higgins’ wonderful book on alternative techniques Why It Does Not Have To Be In Focus, she argues that “faces rarely reflect the inner workings of minds”, suggesting that “there is no such thing as the unified self.” The take-home: you can’t get it right, this business of knowing and showing your own face. Does that mean the quest is unattainable? Sure.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE CHOICE OF TIME, PLACE AND APPROACH IN THE MAKING OF A PORTRAIT is as individual as the human face itself. No two photographers have quite the same process for trying to capture the essence of personality with a camera. Moreover, having chosen a preferred path to making these most personal of images, we often are tempted to stray off of it. As with anything else in the art of creating photos, nothing, from formal studio settings to street candids, works all the time.
Just as one example, the key to portraits, for me, is to always be as fully mindful, in the moment, of the changes that a face can display within the space of a few seconds. You seem to be presented, from start to finish, with a different person altogether…..some other person that showed up, uninvited, to the shoot you’re doing for..someone else. Thus, it’s never a surprise to me when a subject views his/her image from a session, and immediately remarks, “that doesn’t even look like me”, which is, for them, quite correct. It’s as if their face showed something, just for a second, that they don’t recognize as their “official” face. And the photographer sees all these strangers blur by, like the shuffle of a deck of cards.
In photographing my wife Marian, I battle against her native resistance to having her face recorded, well, at all. It’s a rather invasive procedure for her, and, since the finest qualities of her face are revealed when she’s least self-conscious. That rules out studio settings, since all her “danger, Will Robinson” triggers will go off simultaneously the more formalized the situation becomes. I have to use that momentary mindfulness to sense when her face is ready….that is, when she is least aware of having her picture taken. That may mean that many other people are around her, since interaction is relaxing and distracting for her. In the above image, I got particularly lucky, since several factors converged in a moment that I could not have anticipated.
Listening to a history guide on the streets of Boston, Marian’s face set into a wonderful mix of serenity, focus, studiousness. Her finest qualities seem all to have coalesced in a single moment. Even better, although she is in a crowd, the arrangement of people surrounding her kept all other faces either out of focal register or partially hidden, rendering them less readable as full people. That gave the composition a center, as hers was the only complete face in view. Click and done.
Portraits are certainly about anticipation and preparation. But they also have to be about the reactivity of the photographer. And with something as mutative, and mysterious, as the human face, flexibility is a far more valuable tool than any lens or light in your kit bag.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE LUXURY THAT PAINTERS HISTORICALLY ENJOYED OVER PHOTOGRAPHERS was the pure prolonged incubation time between their conception of a thing and its realization on the canvas. Whatever else painting is, it is never an instantaneous process, something that is especially true for portraits. The daubing of strokes, mixing of paint, the waiting for the light, and the waiting for the model to arrive (take a bathroom break, eat dinner, etc.) all contribute to painting’s bias toward the long game. The process cannot be hurried. There is no pigmentary equivalent of the photographic snap shot. Patience is a virtue.
The first photographs of people were likewise a gradual thing, with extended exposure times dictated by the slow speed of early plate and film processes. Once that obstacle was overcome, however, it became a simple thing to snap a person’s face in less and less time. Today, outside of the formal studio experience, most of us freeze faces in record timae, and that may be a bit of a problem in trying to create a true portrait of a person.
Portraits are more than mere recordings, since the subject matter is infinitely more complex than an apple or a vase of flowers. The daunting task of trying to capture some essential quality, some inner soulfulness with a mechanical device should make us all stop and think a little, certainly a little longer than a fraction of a second. Portraits at their best are a kind of psychoanalysis, an negotiation, maybe even a co-creation between two individuals. The best portraitists can be said to have produced a visible relic of something invisible. Can that be done in the instant that it takes to shout “cheese” at somebody?
And if the process of portraiture is, as I argue, an innately personal thing, how can we trust the “street portraits” that we steal from the unsuspecting passerby? Are any of these images revelatory of anything real, or have we only snatched a moment from the onrushing current of a person’s life? Taking the argument away from the human face for a moment, if I take a picture of a single calendar date page, have I made a commentary on the passage of time, or merely snapped a piece of paper with a number on it?
Painters have always been forced into some kind of relationship with their subjects. Some fail and some succeed, but all are approached with an element of planning, of intent. By contrast, the photographer must apprehend what he wants from a face in remarkably short time, and hope his instinct can make an intimate out of a virtual stranger.
BY MICHAEL PERKINS
IN PORTRAITS, PHOTOGRAPHERS SOMETIMES HAVE TO SUBSTITUTE INTIMACY FOR TECHNICAL PERFECTION. We understandably want to come as near as possible to meticulously modulated light in telling the story of a face, and so we try to ride the line between natural, if inadequate light, and light which is shaped so much that we dull the naturalness of the moment.
It’s a maddening tug of war. If we don’t intervene, we might make an image which is less than flattering, or, worse, unfit for publication. If we nib in too much, we get a result whose beauty can border on the sterile. I find that, more often than not, I lean toward the technically limited side, choosing to err in favor of a studied snapshot rather than a polished studio look. If the face I’m shooting is giving me something real, I worry more about throwing a rock into that perfect pond with extra tinkering.
If my subject is personally close to me, I find it harder, not easier, to direct them, lest the quality I’m seeing in their natural state be replaced by a distancing self-consciousness. It puts me in the strange position of having to wait until the situation all but gifts me with the picture, as adding even one more technical element can endanger the feel of the thing. It’s times like this that I’m jammed nose-up against the limits of my own technical ability, and I feel that a less challenged shooter would preserve the delicacy of the situation and still bring home a better photograph.
In the above frame, the window light is strong enough to saturate the central part of my wife’s face, dumping over three-fourths of her into deep shadow. But it’s a portrait. How much more do I need? Would a second source of light, and the additional detail it would deliver on the left side of her head be more “telling” or merely be brighter? I’m lucky enough in this instance for the angle of the window light to create a little twinkle in her eye, anchoring attention in the right place, but, even at a very wide aperture, I still have to crank ISO so far that the shot is grainy, with noise reduction just making the tones flatter. It’s the old trade-off. I’m getting the feel that I’m after, but I have to take the hit on the technical side.
Then there was the problem that Marian hates to have her picture taken. If she hadn’t been on the phone, she would already have been too aware of me, and then there goes the unguarded quality that I want. I can ask a model to “just give me one more” or earn her hourly rate by waiting while I experiment. With the Mrs., not so much.
Here’s what it comes down to: sometimes, you just have to shoot the damned thing.
by MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE SIDE BENEFITS OF PHOTOGRAPHY is that you don’t always have to pick your own subject. Sometimes someone else’s idea of a potentially good image can be yours as well. You simply camp yourself right next to where they’re working and pick off your own shots of their project. Assuming that everyone’s polite and there are no issues of neighborly nibbing, it can work. Just ask anyone who’s clicked away at a presidential press conference or the sudden exit of a celebrity through a side entrance.
Of course, when literally dozens of cameras are trained on a single event, its likely that everyone will come away with the same photos, or very nearly. The moment the prime minister points to drive home his main point, click. The instant when the judges place the tiara on the winning Miss Tomato Paste candidate, click. Sometimes, however, you can kind of “eaves-edit” on just one other shooter’s set-up and edit the shots a different way than he does. You’re not running the session, but you could come away with a better result than he does, based on your choices.
I recently came upon a man shooting a girl in the streets of a kind of faux-village retail environment in Sedona, Arizona. Obviously, the main feature was the lady’s infectious and natural smile. As I came quietly upon them, however, Mr. Cameraman was having a problem keeping that smile from exploding into a full-blown laughing fit. Ms. Subject, in short, had the mad giggles.
Now, from that point onward, I have no idea of what he went home with in the way of a final result, as I had decided that the crack-ups would make better pictures than a merely sweet set of candids. It just seemed more human to me, so I only shot the moments in which she couldn’t compose herself, and took off from there.
I didn’t want to overstay my welcome, so I snapped my little chunk of Mr. Cameraman’s moment and sneaked off, like fast. As I slinked away, I could still hear Ms. Subject telling him, through fits of laughter, “I am so sorry.” She may have been, but I wasn’t.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS HAVE MANY INSTANCES IN WHICH IT’S HEALTHY TO HAVE A LITTLE HUMILITY, and the biggest one probably is in the decision to depict a human face. It’s the most frequently performed operation in all of photography, and many of us only approach perfection in it a handful of times, if ever. The face is the essence of mystery, and learning how to draw the curtain away from it is the essence of mastery.
Nothing else that we will shoot fights so hard to maintain its inscrutability. It is easier to accurately photograph the microbes that swarm in a drop of water than to penetrate the masks that we manufacture. Even the best portrait artists might never show all of what their subject’s soul really looks like, but sometimes we can catch a fleeting glimpse, and getting even that little peek is enough to keep you behind a camera for a lifetime. It is everything.
Yousuf Karsh, the portraitist who can be said to have made the definitive images of Winston Churchill, Audrey Hepburn, JFK, Ernest Hemingway, and countless other notables, said “within every man and woman. a secret is hidden, and, as a photographer, it is my task to reveal it if I can.” Sounds so simple, and yet decades can go into learning the difference between recording a face and rendering its truths. Sometimes I think it’s impossible to photograph people who are strangers to us. How can that ever happen? Other times I fear that it’s beyond our power to create images of those we know the most intimately. How can we show all?
The human face is a document, a lie, a cipher, a self-created monument, an x-ray. It is the armor we put on in order to do battle with the world. It is the entreaty, the bargain, the arrangement with which we engage with each other. It is a time machine, a testimony, a faith. Photographers need their most exacting wisdom, their most profound knowledge of life, to attempt The Reveal. For many of us, it will always remain that….an attempt. For a fortunate few, there is the chance to freeze something eternal, the chance to certify humanity for everyone else.
Quite a privilege.
Quite a duty.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S A TITANIC CLICHE, BUT RESOUNDINGLY TRUE: if you want a child to reveal himself to you photographically, get out of his way.
The highly profitable field of child portrait photography is being turned on its head, or more precisely, turned out of the traditional portrait studio, by the democratization of image making. As technical and monetary barriers that once separated the masses from the elite few are vanishing from photography, every aspect of formal studio sittings is being re-examined. And that means that the $7.99 quickie K-Mart kiddie package is going the way of the dodo. And it’s about bloody time.
Making the subject fit the setting, that is, molding someone to the props, lighting or poses that are most convenient to the portraitist seems increasingly ridiculous. Thing is, the “pros” who do portrait work at the highest levels of the photo industry have long since abandoned these polite prisons, with Edward Steichen posing authors, politicians and film stars in real-life settings (including their own homes) as early as the 1920’s, and Richard Avedon pulling models out of the studio and into the street by the late 1940’s. So it’s not the best photographers who insist on perpetuating the restrictive environment of the studio shoot.
No, it’s the mills, the department and discount stores who still wrangle the kiddies into pre-fab backdrops and watch-the-birdie toys, cranking out one bland, safe image after another, and veering the photograph further and further from any genuine document of the child’s true personality. This is what has to change, and what will eventually result in something altogether different when it comes to kid portraiture.
Children cannot convey anything real about themselves if they are taken out of their comfort zones, the real places that they play and explore. I have seen stunning stuff done with kids in their native environment that dwarfs anything the mills can produce, but the old ways die hard, especially since we still think in terms of “official” portraits, as if it’s 1850 and we have a single opportunity to record our existence for posterity. There really need be no “official” portrait of your child. He isn’t U.S. Grant posing for Matthew Brady. He is a living, pulsating creature bent on joy, and guess what? You know more about who and what he is than the hourly clown at Sears.
I believe that, just as adult portraiture has long since moved out of the studio, children need also to be released from the land of balloons and plush toys. You have the ability to work almost endlessly on getting the shots of your children that you want, and better equipment for even basic candids than have existed at any other period in history. Trust yourself, and experiment. Stop saying “cheese”, and get rid of that damned birdie. Don’t pose, place, or position your kids. Witness these little joy generators in the act of living. They’ll give you everything else you need.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AT A PARTY, THERE ARE DISTINCT ADVANTAGES TO NOT BEING AN “OFFICIAL” PHOTOGRAPHER. You could probably catalogue many of them yourself with no strain. Chief among the perks of being an amateur (can we get a better word for this?) is that you are the captain of your own fate. You shoot what you want, when you want. Your arrival on the scene is not telegraphed by stacks of accompanying cases, light fixtures, connecting cords or other spontaneity killers that are essential to someone who has been “assigned” to an event. Your very unimportance is your license to fly, your ticket to liberation. Termed honestly (if unkindly), your work just doesn’t matter to anyone else, and so it can mean everything to you. Yay.
One of the supreme kicks I derive from going to events with my wife is that I can make her forget I’m there. I mean, as a guy with a camera. She has the gift of being able to submerge completely into the social dynamics of wherever she is, so she is not thinking about when I may elect to sneak up and snap her. Believe me, when you live with a beautiful woman who also hates to have her picture taken, this is like hitting the trifecta at Del Mar. At 20 to 1.
Free from the constraints of being “on the job”, I enjoy a kind of invisibility at parties, since I use the fastest lenses I can and no flash, ever, ever, ever. I do not call attention to myself. I do not exhort people to smile or arrange them next to people that they may or may not be able to stand. The word “cheese” never leaves my lips. I take what the moment gives me, as that is often richer than anything I might concoct, anyway. Working with a DSLR is a little more conspicuous than the magical invisibility of a phone camera, which people totally ignore, but if I am cagey, I can work with an “official” camera and not be perceived as a threat. Again, with a woman who (a) looks great and (b) doesn’t like how she looks in pictures, this is nirvana.
Candid photography is all about the stealth. It’s not about warning or prepping people that, attention K-Mart shoppers, you’re about to have your picture took. The more you insert yourself into the process (look over here! big smiiiiile!) the more you interrupt the natural rhythm that you set out to capture. So stop working against yourself. Be a happy sneak thief. Like me.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
A RECENT PIECE BY TIMOTHY EGAN IN THE NEW YORK TIMES decried the latest innovation in Instagram etiquette, a device called a “selfie stick”. As the name implies, the stick is designed to hold one’s smartphone at a modest distance from its subject (me!) allowing oneself to be better framed against larger scenes, such as landscapes, local sights, etc. Egan mostly ranted against the additional invasion of public peace by armies of narcissistic simps who couldn’t be persuaded to merely be in the moment, unless they could also be in the picture. It struck him as a fresh assault on “real” experience, another example, as if we needed one, of our sadly self-absorbed age.
I agree with most of Egan’s epistle, but I think the real tragedy is that the selfie stick allows us to take more, more, more pictures, and reveal less, less, less of the people that we truly are. Selfies are more than emotionally stunted; most of them are also lies, or, more properly, masks. They are not “portraits” any more than they are steam shovels, as they merely replicate our favorite way of distancing ourselves from discovery… the patented camera smile. Frame after frame, day after endless day, the tselfie tsunami pushes any genuine depiction of humanity farther away, substituting toothpaste grins for authentic faces. Photographs can plumb the depths of the spirit, or they can put up an impenetrable barrier to its discovery, like the endless string of forced “I was here” shots that we now endure in every public place.
There’s a reason that the best portraits begin with not one lucky snap but dozens of “maybes”, as subject and photographer perform a kind of dance with each other, a slow wrestling match between artifice and exposition. Let’s be clear: just because it is easier,mechanically, to capture some kind of image of ourselves doesn’t mean we are getting any closer to the people we camouflage beneath carefully crafted personae. Indeed, if a person who acts as his own lawyer “has a fool for a client”, then most of us have a liar in charge of telling the truth about ourselves. Merely larding on additional technology (say, a stick on a selfie) just allows a larger portion of our false selves to fit into the picture, while the puzzle of who that person is, smirking into the camera, remains, all too often, an unresolved riddle.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
A QUICK GOOGLING OF THE PHOTOGRAPHIC UNIVERSE THESE DAYS will turn up a number of sites dedicated to “faceless portraits”, if there can, strictly speaking, be such a thing (and I believe there can). In a recent post entitled Private, Not Impersonal, I explored the phenomenon in which photographers, absent the features that most easily chronicle their subjects’ personalities, imply them, merely through body language, composition, or lighting. At the time I wrote the post, I was unaware how widespread the practice of faceless portraits had become. In fact, it’s something of a rage. Hmm. The very thought that, even by accident, I could be aligned with something hip, is, by turns, both terrifying and hilarious.
Thing is, photographs, as the famous curator John Szarkowki remarked, both conceal and reveal, and there is nothing about the full depiction of a human face that guarantees that you’re learning or knowing anything about the subject in frame. We are all to practiced at maintaining our respective masks for many portraits to be taken, ha ha, at face value. Cast your eye back through history and you will find dozens of compelling portraits, from Edward Steichen’s silhouettes of Rodin to Annie Leibovitz’ blurred dance photos of Diane Keaton, that preserve some precious element of humanity that a formal, face-on sitting cannot deliver. Call it mystery, for lack of a more precise word.
In the above frame, the subject whose face I myself never even saw gave me something wonderfully human, about reading in particular, but about enchantment in general. She is furiously busy discovering another world, a world the rest of us can only guess at, seeping up from her book. Her entire body is an inventory of emotional textures…of relaxation, attentiveness, of both being in the present and so completely someplace else. Framing her to include the negative spaces of the window, the carpet and the wider bookstore isolate her further from us, but not in a negative way. She wants to be apart; she is on a journey.
My “girl with the flaxen hair” was unaware of me, and I shot furtively and quickly to make sure I didn’t break the spell she was under. It was the least I could do in gratitude for a chance to witness her adventure. Looking back, I think she provided more than enough magic without revealing a single fragment of her face. Seeing is selecting, and I had been given all I needed to do both.
Click and be gone.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PORTRAITURE IS RATHER NARROWLY DEFINED BY MOST PHOTOGRAPHERS as an interpretation of a person’s face, the place wherein we believe that most of his/her humanity resides. The wry smile. The upturned eyebrow. The sparkling eye. It’s all there in the features, or so we seem to profess by valuing the face over nearly all other physical features.We stipulate that there are notable exceptions where the body carries most of the message, as in crowd scenes, sports action, or combat shots. But for the most part, we let the face hold the floor (and believe me, after a few misspent nights, my face has held the floor plenty of times).
It’s interesting, however, in an age where privacy has become a premiere issue, and in which the camera’s eye never blinks, that we don’t explore the narrative power of bodies as much as we do faces. The body, after all, carries out the intentions of the mind no less than does the face. It executes the physical action that the mind intends, and so creates a space that reveals that intention. Just like a face. And yet, we have a decidedly pro-face bias in our portraiture, to the point that a portrait that does not include a face is thought by some not to be a portrait at all.
But let’s keep the discussion, and our minds, open, shall we? I love to work with random crowds, and I like nothing better than to immortalizing emotions in a nice face-freeze. However, I strongly maintain that, absent those obvious visual “cues”, a body can carry a storyline all by itself, even enhance the charm or mystery involved in trying to penetrate the personality of our subjects.
Consider for a moment how many amazing nude studies you’ve seen where the subject’s face is completely, even deliberately obscured. Does the resulting image lack in power, or does the power traditionally residing in the face just transfer to the rest of the composition?
Portraits (I insist on calling them that) that are more “private” for being faceless are no more “impersonal” than if the subject was flashing the traditional “cheese!” and beaming their personality directly into the lens.
Photography is not about always getting the vantage point that we want, but maximizing the one we have at hand. And sometimes, taking away a face also strips away a mask. But beyond that, why not actually court mystery, allow ourselves to trust our audiences to supply mentally what we reserve visually?
Ask yourself: what does a photograph of understatement look like?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CANDID PORTRAITURE IS VOLATILE, THE DEAD OPPOSITE OF A FORMAL SITTING, and therefore a little scarier for some photographers. We tell ourselves that we gain more control over the results of a staged portrait, since we are dictating so many terms within it…the setting, the light, the choice of props, etc. However, can’t all that control also drain the life out of our subjects by injecting self-consciousness ? Why do you think there are so many tutorials written about how to put your subjects at ease, encourage them to be themselves, persuade them to unclench their teeth? Getting someone to sit where we tell them, do what we tell them, and yet “act naturally” involves a skill set that many photographers must learn over time, since they have to act as life-coach, father-confessor, camp counselor, and seducer, all at once. Also helps if you hand out lollipops.
Then again, shooting on the fly with the hope of capturing something essential about a person who is paying you zero attention is also fraught with risk, since you could crank off fifty frames and still go home without that person revealing anything real within the given time-frame. As with most issues photographic, there is no solution that works all of the time. I do find that one particular class of person affords you a slight edge in candid work, and that is performers. Catch a piece of them in the act of playing, singing, dancing, becoming, and you get as close to the heart of their essence that you, as an outsider, are ever going to get. If they are submerged in being, you might be lucky enough to witness something supernatural.
The more people lose themselves in a quest for the perfect sonata, the ultimate tap step, or the big money note, the less they are trying to give you a “version” of themselves, or worse yet, the rendition of themselves that they think plays well for the camera. As for you, candids work like any other kind of street photography. It’s on you to sense the moment as it arrives and grab it. It’s anything but easy, but better, when it works, then sitting someone amidst props and hoping they won’t freeze up on you.
There are two ways to catch magic in a box when it comes to portraits. One is to have a tremendous relationship with the person who is sitting for you, and the other is to be the best spy in the world when plucking an instant from a real life that is playing out in front of you. You have to know which tack to take, and where the best image can be extracted.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FACES ARE THE PRIMARY REASON THAT PHOTOGRAPHY FIRST “HAPPENED” FOR MOST OF US. Landscapes, the chronicling of history, the measurements of science, the abstract rearrangement of light, no other single subject impacts us on the same visceral level as the human countenance. Its celebrations and tragedies. Its discoveries and secrets. Its timeline of age.
It is in witnessing to faces that we first learn how photography works as an interpretive art. They provide us with the clearest stories, the most direct connection with our emotions and memories. And the standard way to do this is to show the entire face. Both eyes. Nose. Mouth. The works. Right?
But can’t we add both interpretation and a bit of mystery by showing less than a complete face? Would Mona Lisa be more or less intriguing if her eyes were absent from her famous portrait? Would her smile alone convey her mystic quality? Or are her eyes the sole irreplaceable element, and, if so, is her smile superfluous?
Instead of faces as mere remembrances of people, can’t we create something unique in the suggestion of people, of a faint ghost of their total presence” Can’t images convey something beyond a mere record of their features on a certain day and date? Something universal? Something timeless?
It seems that, as soon as we maintain rigidity on a rule….any rule…we are likewise putting a fence around how far we can see. The face is no more sacred than any other visual element we hope to shape.
Let’s not build a cage around it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
NOT ALL PORTRAITS INVOLVE FACES.
I’ll let that little bit of blasphemy sink in for a moment. After all, the face is supposed to be the key to a persona’s entire identity, and God knows that many a mediocre shot has been saved by a fascinating expression, right? The eyes are the window to the soul, and so on, and so forth, etc., etc.
But is this “face-centric” bias worthy of photographers, who are always re-writing the terms of visual engagement on every conceivable subject? Is there one single way to make a person register in an image? Obviously I don’t believe that, or else I wouldn’t have started this argument, but, beyond my native contrariness, I just am not content with there being a single, approved way of visualizing anything. I’ve seen too much amazing work done from every conceivable standpoint to admit of any limitation, or need for a “rule”, even when it comes to portraiture.
The face is many things, but it’s not the entire body, and even if you capture a shot in which the subject’s face is absent, he or she can be so very present in the feel of the picture. Arms, shoulders, the sinews, the stance, the way a body stands in a frame…all can bear testimony.
I recently stumbled onto an impromptu performance by a young string quartet, and faced the usual problem of not being able to simultaneously do justice to all four members’ faces, to balance the tension and concentration written on all their features in performance. In such situations, you have to make some kind of call: the picture becomes a dynamic tension between the shown and the hidden, just as the music is a push-and-pull between dominant and passive forces. You must decide what will remain unseen, and, sometimes, that’s a face.
As the music evolved, the two ladies seen above were, in different instants, either in charge of, or at the service of, the energy of the moment. For this picture, I saw more strength, more power in the back of the violinist than in the front of the cellist. It was body language, a kind of structural tug between the pair, and I voted for what I could not show fully. As it turned out, the violinist actually has a lovely face, one possessing a stern, disciplined intensity. On another day, her story would have been told very differently.
On this day, however, I was happy to have her turn her back on me.
And turn my own head around a bit.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHATEVER MARVELS CURRENT TECHNOLOGY ALLOW US TO ACHIEVE IN PHOTOGRAPHY, there is one thing that it can never, ever afford us: the ability to be “present at the creation”, actively engaged at the dawn of an art in which nearly all of its practitioners are doing something fundamental for the very first time. The nineteenth century now shines forth as the most open, experimental and instinctive period within all of photography, peopled with pioneers who achieved things because there was no tradition to discourage them, mapping out the first roads that are now our well-worn highways. It is an amazing, matchless time of magic, risk, and invention.
Much of it was largely mechanical in nature, with the 1800’s marked by rapidly changing technical means for making images, for finding faster recording media and sharper lenses. The true thrill of early photography comes, however, from those who conjured ways of seeing and interpreting the world, rather than merely making a record of it. In some ways, creating a camera
facile enough to fix portraits on glass was easy. compared with the evolving philosophy of how to portray a person, what part of the subject to capture within the frame. And it was in this latter wizardry that Julia Margaret Cameron entered the pantheon of genuine genius.
Born to courtly British comfort in India in 1815, Cameron, largely a hobbyist, was one of the first photographers to move beyond the rigid, lifeless portraits of the era to generate works of investigation into the human spirit. She was technically bound by the same long exposures that made sitting for a picture such torture at the time, but, somehow, even though she endlessly posed, cajoled, and even bullied her subjects into position, she nonetheless achieved an intimacy in her work that the finest studio pros of the early 19th century could not approximate. Far from being put off by the softness that resulted from long exposures, Cameron embraced it, imbuing her shots with a gauzy, ethereal quality, a human look that made most other portraits look like staged lies.
In many cases, Julia Margaret Cameron’s eye has become the eye of history, since many who sat for her, like Charles Darwin, seldom or ever sat again for anyone else, making her view of their greatness the official view. And while she only practiced her craft for a scant fifteen years, no one who hopes to illuminate a personality in a photographic frame can be free of her heavenly mix of soft edges and hard truths.
Extra Credit: for more samples of JMC’s work, take this link to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cameron exhibition page:
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CAMERAS CAN EITHER TAKE CHOICE AWAY OR CHALLENGE YOU TO MASTER IT. If you’re a regular reader of this comic strip, you know all too well that I advocate making images with all manual settings rather than relying on automodes that can only come in a distant second to the human process of decision-making. People take better pictures with a camera than a camera can take alone. Can I get an Amen?
There is, of course, one choice you don’t get to make for any picture you create. You can’t mark a box called “the choice I made guarantees that everything in the image will work out.” Worse, there is always more than one choice being made in the creation of a photograph, and, even if you’re well-practiced and fast, you can’t make all of them perfectly. Choose one option and you are “un-choosing” another. The sum of the effect of all your choices together is what determines the final picture. That’s real work, and it certainly accounts for many people’s preference for automodes, since they obviate all those tough calls.
Nothing will force you to choose lots of options in short order like taking pictures of children at play. The image posted here, taken at a kindergarten playdate, shows a number of fast decisions that may or may not add up to an appealing picture, as lots of things are going on all at once. In the room where this was shot, space was tight, action was swift, white balances were wildly different in various zones within the room, and posing the kids in any way was absolutely impossible, due to their tender age and the fact that I wanted to be as invisible as possible, the better to catch their natural flow. To get pictures under this particular set of conditions, I had to decide how best to frame children who were grouping and ungrouping rapidly, where to get a fairly accurate register of color, customize my shutter speed and ISO with nearly every shot, and, as you see here, make my peace with whether the action implied in the shot outweighed the need for super sharpness.
You simply get into situations with some shots where you are not going to get everything you’d like to have, and you make decisions in the moment based on what each individual image seems to be “about”. Here I went for the joy, the bonding, the surging energy of the girls and let everything else take a back seat. Faced with the same situation seconds later, I might have remixed the elements to create a completely different result, but that is both the thrill and the bane of manual shooting. Automodes guarantee that you will get some kind of image, a very safe, if average, picture that allows you to worry less and possibly enjoy being in the moment to a greater degree….but you are the only factor than can take the photo to another level, to, in fact, take full responsibility for the result. It’s like the difference between taking a picture of Niagara Falls from your hotel room and taking it from a tightrope stretched across the raging waters.
And, ah, that difference is everything.