By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU’VE LIKELY EXPERIENCED IT: I call it shutter lock, the photographer’s equivalent of writer’s block. You have the subject. You have opportunity. And you certainly have motive. But the picture won’t come.
More specifically, the right picture won’t come. You’ve chosen the wrong angle. The wrong aspect. It’s lost in a sea of busy. Or it’s just…well, hiding. Your perfect shot has now become some frustrating game of Where’s Waldo? Should you move on? Reconsider? Or in Oz’ words, simply “go away and come back tomorrow”?
And then you move a few inches. You walk around your quarry and something else about it begins to speak, first in a whisper, and then, in a clear, loud voice that says, “of course”. And you make the picture.
My recent and most stubborn case of shutter lock has been on me since the start of our Great Hibernation, a time when photographers have flooded social media with ideas for “projects”. Essays. Statements that will sum up What We’re All Going Through. And more than a few challenges to find all that Supreme Truth in a self-portrait. How is this affecting you? How has it reshaped your features, the part of your soul that seeps though haunted eyes or pursed lips? I was fascinated by that idea, of course, and why not? We all love to explore ourselves, to regard ourselves as our own True North. But I wasn’t capturing it, or at least enough of it. I was staring at a landscape that I couldn’t turn into a picture.
And then I stopped looking inward. Selfies can certainly reveal our inner dialogues, but all my own face was registering was a kind of unreadable…numbness. And so I moved about thirty inches, and she was there.
Marian is always there at my most instructive moments of clarity. She hacks through my busy clutter and lets enough air into my brain to allow me to see sense, and regain my bearings. The most wonderful thing about it is, she often doesn’t know she’s doing it. There is was, on her face, the look I was seeking, and missing, on my own. A mix of grim resolution, hope, helplessness, exhaustion. Not a look of absolute despair….more like a dead serious attempt to re-focus, to keep swimming against the tide. Suddenly her face was not only a better expression of my own journey but everyone’s. It felt universal, beyond language. In short, it looked like a photograph.
And now it is one. I took it with the crudest camera I have, under the worst conditions possible. And then I tortured it even more in an app to make it appear antique enough to feel relevant to all crises, all dark nights of the soul. It’s technically a wreck, and yet I’m proud of it. Proud of myself for getting outside myself in order to see it. Proud of it as a possession. And proud to allow my partner to be The Interpreter.
FIAT LUX, Michael Perkins’ newest collection of images, is now available through NormalEye Books.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOON WE WILL STOP REFERRING TO THE DAILY GLOBAL TOTAL OF SELF-PORTRAITS by any specific number, since the actual figure will be (a) impossible to ascertain and (b) so astronomical as to be meaningless. A quick shuffle through just our own collection of selfies for a given period gives us an idea what happens when technical ease meets runaway narcissism. Or to put it simpler, we take a $%#@-ton of pictures of us. We love us.
The current Great Hibernation (or Uber-Lockdown, or Mass-Incarceration or Panic-Room Marathon) is forcing us to spend even more time with our favorite person, and it stands to reason that the circumstances will change the way we decide to document what we are personally enduring. Here I am in the sixth week of my bad haircut. This is me in my formal sweatpants. I don’t know where I took this…or what time…or what day/week/month. Change the nature of a photographic subject and you’re bound to change how you’ll document that subject.
The whole social context has been warped out of shape, and so must our image of ourselves, which, after all, is shaped by how we interact, where we go, what constitutes a good or bad day. And so self-portraits are being forcibly filtered through a completely different set of criteria than they were just a heartbeat ago, when all we had to do to be somewhere else was, you know, go there. The way emotions play across our faces will be pretzeled into interesting new shapes as a consequence. As we age in this particular barrel, we will be changed. Some of us will emerge from it as palpably different from the animals that went in.
That creates challenge for photographers, especially when it’s us shooting us. How trustworthy are we as narrators? How aware of we of the subtle changes we undergo when the toilet paper runs low? The pictures will eventually provide the chronicle. But in the interim, we need to ask different questions, seek different angles, spot variances. Hey, we might as well be honest. The camera never lies, right?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
What moves me about what’s called “technique”…is that it comes from some mysterious deep place. I mean it can have something to do with the paper and the developer and all that stuff, but it comes mostly from some very deep choices somebody has made that take a long time and keep haunting them.” – Diane Arbus
ONE EVERLASTING ARGUMENT ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHY centers on whether there is any such thing as a “pure” picture…..that is, an image which is merely the recording of reality without the slightest hint of intervention by the photographer. I believe that, in making pictures, we convince ourselves that we have only made a “document” of life, that our own thumbs don’t touch the scale in favor of any kind of bias. But I also believe that, no matter what we tell ourselves about the process, it is impossible for us to retreat to the mere act of punching the shutter button, since even that simple motion has some level of choice inherent in it. The objectivity we believe that we practice is largely an illusion: the impact of our photographs is in direct proportion to just how much we do interfere.
So if just punching the button is at one end of the interference spectrum, then self-portraiture, the age’s dominant obsession, is clear over at the other extreme. In trying to take our own picture, we do nothing but interfere. And stage. And shape. And edit. And perform. Most of this very hands-on approach to immortalizing ourselves is a matter of mere human vanity. We want to come off well. Is my hair all right? Do I look pleasant? Does this make me look too fat/serious/lonely/decisive? In the largely theatrical sphere of selfies, the massage is really the medium.
But, just because we’ve tried to frame our truth in the most sympathetic light doesn’t mean our self-portraits are automatically untrustworthy. In some very real way, we are trying to reveal something about ourselves that no one else has seen, or in Arbus’ words, to show “very deep choices” we have made “that take a long time” and keep “haunting” us. One of the most personal things about what I call our current Great Hibernation is the care or worry that’s etched on our faces in our unguarded moments, those minutes when we’re not sending along recipes and cheery memes on Facebook, or taking online classes, or catching up on our reading. There are real photographs to be made of the anguish and uncertainty we’re all experiencing, even if they can’t be taken in real time. The self-portrait you see here admittedly involves some acting, as it’s a purposeful re-creation of emotions once truly experienced in full, albeit in isolation. As a consequence, I stipulate that the result is imperfect, even though it may still be “true”. My thought process actually proceeds from an experiment in which, after making this picture, I’d show it to others and ask, “does this look like what you’re feeling right now?” In turn, the responses I got made me wonder if I should ever confess that I was the photographer as well as the subject, since I was afraid that such as admission would, for some, render the picture void, since, after all, aren’t we the worst judge of how we look, or should look, in an image?
But what if we’re not? What if our own knowledge of ourselves is so unique that we are, indeed, qualified to say to the world, I know this isn’t a true “candid”, but so what? Yes, it’s true that, in this photo, I wasn’t “caught unawares”. What you see here is a re-creation of how I felt, and will again feel. Still, who is around in my otherwise quiet house to tell this tale more effectively? Am I disqualified because I am trying to make art out of my own life? Diane Arbus also said that a photograph is a secret about a secret. Perhaps the most important pictures we can make, to plumb our own secrets, is to try to map our anxieties…in the moment, if we can, but as faithfully as we can after the fact, even when they’re re-constructed from memory.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ALTHOUGH BEING ROMANTICALLY SMITTEN IS NOT A PREREQUISITE for being a great photographic portraitist, I firmly believe that the very best of them are, indeed, lovers…..or at least in love with a mysterious something that informs their work. From treasuring humanity so much that they breathe empathy into their candid street work, or loving an individual in a way that can only be satisfied by turning that someone into an ideal bit of moldable clay, portraitists are a bit possessed, fervently dedicated to showing something only their affection can let them see. It seems perfectly normal now for cameras to fall head over heels over faces. So inevitable, so logical. And yet the camera and the face had to have their own early days of courtship.
One of the earliest and most fascinating muses in photographic history was herself an artist, a soul so amazingly unchained and boundless that the natural, if perverse, reaction to it was to try to imprison it inside a box. The face of the painter Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986) was not classically beautiful, but upon meeting her in 1916 at an exhibition, the pioneering photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), a man whose enthusiasm helped to launch dozens of art careers beyond his own, was knocked cold. After years as the promoter of the Pictorialist movement and editor of the revolutionary art publication Camera Work, Stieglitz had, in his own estimation, become disconnected from his own photographic instincts. Stuck, if you will. O’Keefe, twenty-three years his junior, and as close to the embodiment of the phrase “free spirit” as you can imagine, unstuck him. Between 1917 and 1937, often as a sidebar to their famously torrid relationship, Alfred made over one hundred portraits of her, posing her in every setting, mood, and level of intimacy. Many of the images were nudes or partial nudes, but all of them were Stieglitz’ attempt to hone his own style to its purist form, to see O’Keefe as the ultimate object and subject. Writing to a friend, he described the opportunity and the challenge Georgia had brought to his work:
I am at last photographing again. . . . It is straight. No tricks of any kind.—No humbug.—No sentimentalism.—Not old nor new.—It is so sharp that you can see the pores in a face—& yet it is abstract. . . . It is a series of about 100 pictures of one person—heads & ears—toes—hands—torsos—It is the doing of something I had in mind for very many years.
Stieglitz also promoted O’Keefe’s own art in shows at his legendary 291 gallery and in a mixed show of photographers and painters entitled Seven Americans. Some of his most intimate portraits of O’Keefe were exhibited at the time as well, often with no attribution as to the name of the subject. Over the years, Alfred and Georgia’s relationship was as uneven as it was ardent, with Stieglitz having an affair after they were married, only to later see O’Keefe have a dalliance with the very same person several years later. Eventually, the combined tensions of their competing careers, issues of fidelity, and their gravitation to very different geographic art destinations (O’Keefe’s New Mexican desert versus Alfred’s beloved Manhattan) spelled the end for the marriage. Eventually, in history’s typical pattern, it is the art, rather than the artist, that survives.
And what Stieglitz had shown, early on in the 20th century, was what photographs created by a person possessed might look like, what portraits that were ignited by the heart might aspire to. I relate to this idea strongly in the case of my own work, which has been informed and often expanded by having my wife for a muse. In learning all the facets of her face, I in turn learn more about the secrets behind all other faces. I understand the spark that snapped when Alfred met Georgia, and I look for those fabulous fireworks every time I myself snap a shutter.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE STRANGE RITUAL BY WHICH WE HAVE BEEN INTRODUCED to political candidates has been forged alongside our inherited habits of chronicling life with cameras. The select corps of reporters that is technically tasked with capturing the “official” look and feel of a campaign actually accomplishes no such thing. In the era of ubiquitous personal recording devices, the impressions that can be conveyed of a politician’s viability are finally as varied as the number of people in their desired audiences. All impressions matter, and at the same time, none of them matter. We are all in charge of our own lenses, and our own truth.
Wherever you rate a candidate on a scale of uncool to cool (and how you, in turn, envision his or her “electability” with your camera) is naturally linked to everything you subjectively experience when in contact with that person (or his entourage). Was the hall air-conditioned? Was the free food any good? Was there easy parking at the rally? Did you stand next to someone obnoxious during the speech. And, as to the speech, was it erudite or homespun? Concise or long-winded? Was the sound system working? Had you already heard that same stump speech too many other times? Did he/she look older/thinner/taller than on tv? And then there are the exact same in-the-moment technical challenges of a “live shoot” that the professional network crews are contending with, from lighting to composition to that idiot in front of you who blocked your million-dollar shot with his campaign sign. The whole situation is, in its own way, as dynamic, moment to moment, as covering a sports competition. That is to say, not easy.
Ironically, the thing about shooting political events that is most problematic is the shooter himself, since we, as either passive or active voters, have already brought our biases and hopes to the rallies, linking them in series with our lenses and optics just as surely as if they were color filters. We begin our “coverage” from an established viewpoint, completely obviating the idea of objectivity. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing: to be able to take a shot you are also able to control a shot, and if you can’t bring your own take to something as personal as a political contest, then it’s not worth even lifting your camera to your eye.
Since photography is all about selection, i.e., the extraction and suspension of specific particles of time, it stands to reason that an image which makes a politician look godlike in one moment can make him look like a drooling idiot the next. We are all subject to the shaping of reality achieved by skillful use of the camera. Once we experience it in our own work, that knowledge may help us be better consumers of the images made from outside our own viewpoints, and calculated to persuade, reveal, or conceal.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE RIGHTLY ACCUSED, from time to time, of trying too hard to capture every key moment of life. Part of that drive can certainly be written off to the pursuit of any obsessive-compulsive hobby, from stamp collecting to Elvis paraphernalia. But some of it is driven by the haunted regrets that involve the pictures that we didn’t, and now never can, take.
I got a sad reminder of that this week. Because a friend of mine died. And somehow, I, the perpetual pest with a camera (in the estimation of my entire social circle, and beyond) never managed, in the seven years of that friendship, to take his picture even once. The hollow feeling that has accompanied that realization over the past few days is twice as painful, since this is not the first time this has happened. No, I can actually count a small crowd of people who have moved into important rooms in the house of my life, then packed and left without my having so much as a snapshot to remember them by. What does this say about me, and how I see my relationships with people?
Since my children have grown to adults and launched their own lives, I have seldom had subjects that have justified the feverish shower of photos that once defined my active parenting years. There are grandchildren now, but, compared to the torrent of images taken of them (and shared with me) by other family members, I see my own yield of personally shot pictures as a paltry pile. Now ask me how many images I’ve made of skyscrapers. Ouch.
And now another friend is gone, destined to live only in my memory, the way almost everyone was remembered by almost everybody before the invention of the camera. Surely my reminiscences of the most important people in my life are stronger, more personal, than any photograph I might create of any one of them, right? Or would a picture be the best tribute to those no longer here, a true measure, at least in light and dimensions, of what they were actually like? Or, further, do I just believe that even my best work might fall short of their best essence, and simply dodge the daunting task of documenting them in a physical way?
Friendships, at least the good ones, are like our notion of our very own lives, in that they seem to be destined to go on forever. Until they don’t. At this point in the game, I’m fast approaching a world populated largely by ghosts of adventures long past. A mere two-dimensional record of those who are gone is probably a sorry substitute for the detail of memory, except, of course, that memory itself will eventually corrode and go brown around the edges. Maybe the real reason to make a photograph of someone is the same reason a jazz musician creates an improvisation, in the moment, on a familiar tune. We are celebrating the now, interpreting this person’s impact on us right now. It’s be funny to learn that images are not so much about preserving people forever as they are emotional reactions to where they are for you while they are still here. Maybe our pictures don’t preserve anything about those people except how much we loved them. That’s not enough to show from the so many lives in our life. But it’s something.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE WAY THE EMERGING ART OF PHOTOGRAPHY SOUGHT TO LEGITIMIZE ITSELF in the nineteenth century was to cloak itself in the vocabulary of painters, to certify its value in the same terms that were applied to the art people feared it was conspiring to replace. This meant speaking of perspective, tone, realism, and all the other trigger words of the dauber. It also meant that, in the early days of recording media (paper, glass, eventually celluloid), that the formal occasion of making a portrait was also, as it was for the painter, a slow, deliberative process. Early photo portraits had to be “managed to death” since exposures took a minute or longer, certainly more “instantaneous” than a painted effigy but still requiring that the subject formally “sit” for the occasion.
After 1900, as film speeds and supplemental lighting evolved, the portrait could be mechanically done with less preparation, but the formality, the august occasion of having one’s picture “made” persisted. But whereas a painted or an early photographic portrait, for folks in the Victorian era, may very well have been the only official record of a person’s face over a lifetime, snapshot technology made it possible to have hundreds, later thousands of portraits of oneself shot from cradle to grave. And yet, it’s only in recent years that the traditional idea of a “serious” portrait has begun to finally fade from general use, with even formal photogs breaking free of the studio walls, taking wedding or graduation shots by quiet streams or rolling hills.
Which, to me, is all to the good. I believe in trying to select the right facial expression from settings in which the subject is in his or her natural element, extracting the optimum view from the rolling movie of that person in action, in motion. It’s the best weapon against the powerful, if unconscious reflex people fall into once they fixate on the fact that they are having their picture “taken”. For reasons of shyness, vanity, or the urge to put forth their “best angle”, people cinch up and pose to at least some degree, making their face just that much less natural than it is when they have better things to worry about. Taking a 100% candid snap is nearly impossible unless the subject has something to do beyond waiting for the dreaded shutter click.
In the image shown here, I didn’t have to tell the subject to “act like you’re watching a bird”, because she was, in fact, watching a bird. She doesn’t have to portray a version of herself: she just has to be. The onus is rightfully on me to catch her looking like herself, not to attempt to replicate that self within the trappings of a studio in some kind of weird round of Let’s Pretend. It also helps that this setting isn’t my eye’s first acquaintance with her face, but rather a picture shot after months of watching her in the act of pursuing her passion. The old mind-set of portrait making from the 1800’s is thus reconstituted. My lengthy preparation and study for making the portrait happens ahead of the actual act of capture, with the physical execution of the shot taking as little time as possible, the better to relax the quarry and thus fend off any unconscious play-acting.
Ask yourself which your subject would prefer: being forced to simulate some version of themselves in a formal setting or being passively recorded while in the act of being themselves by a nearly invisible and non-invasive process. Portraits aren’t supposed to be homework and they aren’t effective when done solely on the photographer’s terms. Know your subject, get out of the way, and enjoy the surprises which are bound to result.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
“DO YOU KNOW THAT PERSON?”
If you’ve ever even dipped your little toe into street photography, chances are that you have fielded that question from somebody, right after they encounter an unfamiliar face among your pictures. Further, should you answer in the negative, you’re liable to be met with a quizzical look, as if the person were asking, “then why in the world would you take their picture?” Strangely, the answer isn’t that complicated: it’s because that face is at least as interesting, as full of mystery and misery and joy, as the face of any of my “tribe”: a face, in short, worth a picture.
Of course, the majority of faces we record with cameras are those that we know and cherish. But every face on the planet has the same potential to be treasured as every other face, since all record the same conflicts and aspirations. The features found in our own social circle are not exclusively magical: they don’t portray dramas or dreams that are peculiar to us alone. The “others” are just “us” with some of the information missing. The information that begins being amplified the moment the shutter clicks.
Street photography is a second cousin to journalism in one very key respect, in that both kinds of images endeavor to take us from the particular to the general, showing us faces that react the way we might react to a given stimulus, be it a celebration, a war, a comedy, or a tragedy. We are led by the best of these images from the very specific reaction of one person we don’t know to a general shared human feeling we all recognize. Magazines, televised news reports, documentaries all remind us of the feelings we all hold in common. And yet, when an unknown face invades a batch of pictures that we regard as “relevant” someone is bound to sneer that the photographer ” always takes pictures of complete strangers”, as if there could be such a thing. In the case of the woman seen above, with whom I had the great accidental luck to share a bench in a museum, I see a symphony of short stories, mixed and remixed every time I come back to the image. I will never be her intimate friend in the standard sense of the word, but, in another sense, we are communicating with each other on a very special level.
At minimum, once a photograph is made of a face, the person to whom it belongs can never again be a “complete stranger”. At most, he or she could be an “incomplete” stranger, with the strangeness of a good candid portrait ebbing away with each additional viewing. Like the reporter or journalist, the street photographer is finding the unguarded moment, the unanticipated event, the unforeseen result. And that humanness is universal, immediate in its cognitive effect. We know these people.
We are these people.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
Smiling faces, smiling faces sometimes, they don’t tell the truth —The Undisputed Truth
One can smile and smile, and yet be a villain…..William Shakespeare
THE GREAT ANNIE LEIBOVITZ, writing in her wonderful treatise on technique, At Work, confesses that she never asks her subjects to smile, leaving their most natural expression to emerge (or even remain hidden) as they choose. I love this idea, since I believe that smiles have forever been the mandatory mask we reflexively profer to the camera in nearly every setting, to the detriment, occasionally, of trustworthiness in our pictures. We smile at birthdays, anniversaries, reunions, weddings, perhaps occasionally even at funerals. We gamely grin our way through every occasion that calls for a photographic record, freezing our faces into rictuses amid toothy recitations of the word “Cheeeeeese“, as if any other response to a lens is incomplete, or, worse, rude. Ironically, when the grimace becomes too strained, we may even urge the shooter to “hurry up and take the picture”, lest our face freeze that way. Nevertheless, smiles are the social default, the unspoken civil grammar of portraiture.
And yet, consider how many astounding, revelatory portraits are virtually smile-less, or how we can sometimes view an image with outright suspicion if the smiles within it strike us as forced or contrived. More importantly, we might ask ourselves, what the hell is everyone so happy about? The urge to smile, darn you, smile in photographs is certainly a deeply rooted one. Perhaps the first person to beam for the camera was also the first person who didn’t have to pose stock-still for a full minute just to be recorded by the slow media of the 1800’s, a rod jacked up his back to keep his head immobilized. Who knows? But whatever the original motivation was to “look pleasant” (as early shooters often instructed), it stuck, and is now, in the age of the social-media-fed fueled selfie, practically an article of faith. We’re all so damned overjoyed to be here. Just take the picture, willya?
Have we all become slaves to the mandatory mask? Dare we have our picture taken when it’s not “a beautiful day in the neighborhood”? Are we doomed to endlessly emulate Alfred E. Neuman’s “what, me worry?” smirk? Can’t there be more to a portrait than just a simulation of jollity? Certainly we need not consistently present ourselves as dour grumps before the camera, but there must be some kind of happy (content? beneficient? neutral?) medium. Is the boy in the shot seen here any less “real” or interesting just because he forgot to say the “c” word? Or did we happen upon something closer to his real self that the mandatory mask might have concealed?
Every portrait is different, since every person’s face is a different and unique set of stories. Might it not take more than a mere smile to get all those stories told in an authentic way? Without a doubt, happiness, real happiness, is an experience that every photographer aspires to capture. But, emotionally, happiness is not the only arrow in the shooter’s quiver. If we’re really about truth-telling in our pictures, we have to get comfortable when something other than the mask shows up in the final product.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FACES ARE A LOT LIKE SKIES ON A DAY OF WIND-DRIVEN OVERCAST, with emotions sweeping swiftly across their features, alternatively lightening, darkening, producing bursts of color and dusks of shadow, all in the space of a few seconds. The mood changes that play upon our faces from moment to moment are so far-reaching that, in a static medium like still photography, we often feel we cannot create a single image that “tells all” about even the most familiar people in our lives. There are times when more than one feeling is layered over others, with only one state of mind captured in a single frame.
Or so I used to believe.
As stated in previous pages of this small-town newspaper, my parents have had both the great good luck and the jarring challenge of living very close to the century mark. With geography separating us from each other most of the time, the ticking of the clock adds a fearful urgency to my attempts to photograph them in what is essentially their ninth inning. As to how I can shoot them, formal sittings are largely a thing of the past: both are well beyond forced posing, having said “cheese” more times than the entire population of Wisconsin, leaving me to maintain a constant vigil for the unguarded, and potentially revelatory, moment. And that’s where a latter-day gift of sorts has burst onto the scene. Far from the emotionally simple “happy Dad”, “sad Mom” pictures that were emblematic of their earlier years, I now see their faces as aggregations, multi-level combinations of several emotions all registering in the same moment. It’s as if their features have become one of those plexiglass “how it’s made” models of a complex airplane that shows all of the craft’s inner workings at once, or, in simpler terms, as if my camera had been transformed into a CT scanner.
One very effective ignition point for seeing this layering in my father, for example, comes when he is consuming what we will lightly call The News Of The Day. One need not comment on specific issues to recognize that the present world is a very complicated place, and that, when you are ninety, it’s tough not to filter everything through decades of comparable experiences. In watching Dad watch the world these days, I can simultaneously see the many versions of him that I’ve learned to recognize throughout the years. Curiosity? Certainly, but also consternation, hope, bewilderment, sadness, wisdom, and, to a greater and greater degree, resignation. The world is racing forward, not quite yet without him on board, but certainly nowhere near the front of the parade. And since I trail him in age by twenty-three years, I have not yet seen all that he has seen, but I certainly feel a version of his own feelings of accumulation, even from my more limited lookout point above life’s battlefield. The sheer weight of all those feelings is fully one-third stronger in him than in me, but my own legacy of sensations has taught me to detect (and hopefully capture in my box) stories that say much more about his inner mind than just “happy” or “sad”. His face, and that of my mother’s as well, is now more than just familiar: it’s prophetic. I try to see what he and she are teaching…..a very strange, elegant and sometimes terrifying tapestry. Still, even though the view is often obscured by tears, I will never blink or look away. This is a premium seat I occupy now, and I have paid handsomely for the privilege of sitting here.
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.