the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

San Francisco



Model “A”, the first version of the classic View-Master viewer (1939), which originally opened like a clamshell for loading of the picture reel. The scene change lever (with wire spring attached) is on the inside back of the unit.

By MICHAEL PERKINS (author of the new image collection FIAT LUX, available now from NormalEye Press)


IN 1939, THIS STRANGE CLAMSHELL-SHAPED OBJECT sneaked onto the photographic market as a souvenir of the New York World’s Fair, offering itself as a thoroughly modern version of the 19th-century stereopticon. Instead of a rectangular card, the gizmo contained a disc, inside of which were sandwiched seven matching pairs of color transparencies, one for each eye of a stereoscopically-abled human, and which, when held up to any light source, allowed the brain to blend the two slightly different versions of the subject into a convincing illusion of depth. Model “A” of the contraption, called a “View-Master” by its inventors, would, over the next eight year, allow armchair adventurers to travel the world without leaving their living rooms, seeing in each reel, as the advertisement went, “seven more wonders of the world.”

At this writing (December 2020), those ubiquitous little discs, about 1.5 billion of them so far, could easily circle said globe several dozen times, with the View-Master brand growing over the generations to include lighted viewers, talking viewers, models shaped like Mickey Mouse, Batman and Barbie, both two and three-dimensional projectors, study guides for surgical anatomy, sighting practice for WWII fighter pilots, and, by the second decade of the 21st century, even virtual reality headpieces linked to phone app content. The brainchild of postcard magnate Edwin Mayer and photographer William Gruber grew from primarily scenic travel titles sold in serious camera shops to one of the biggest purveyors of affordable kiddie entertainment, starting with View-Master’s first contract with Disney in the 1950’s and continuing with every major cartoon and movie tie-in since then, marketed mostly through major toy chains.

Over the years, the company passed through the hands of several corporations, from the original Sawyer’s optical company to GAF, then Mattel, Fisher-Price, and other firms major and minor. The venture into virtual reality of recent years, sadly, seems to have spelled the end for the product, which is, alas, finally too slow and low-tech for the world of 2020. As recently as last year, there was talk (and only talk) of a feature film based on VM, based on the proposition that, as with The Lego Movie, every classic toy has a big-screen blockbuster lurking inside it, if only you look hard enough. Turns out…no.

But I must shed at least a quiet tear at View-Master’s demise, given that it was the product’s seductively scenic “packets” that initially excited me about the idea of making my own pictures. Those cramped little squares taught me a lot about what to include or exclude in a composition for minimum clutter and maximum narrative impact. Decades later, I even managed to scavenge a View-Master stereo camera (yes, there were such things) and a Stereo-Matic 500 projector, allowing me to come full circle, both shooting and projecting my own reels in 3-D (thus pre-paying my Geek Insurance for the next foreseeable lifetime). More importantly, the dozens of VM shooters (most of them uncredited in their lifetimes) who covered everything from the Grand Canyon to the moon landing over 81 years informed the way I approach the very idea of photography. The lessons were simple; make something beautiful; tell a story; and keep looking around the next corner, for, who knows, seven more wonders of the world.



Really dark church, not much time. An HDR composite of just two exposures to refrain from trying to read the darkest areas and thus keep extra noise out of the final image. Shot at 1/15 and 1/30 sec., both exposures at f/5.6, a slight ISO bump to 200 at 18mm. Far from perfect but something less than a total disaster with an impatient tour group wondering where I wandered off to. 




Damn. Okay, just a second. 

Now. We’re going NOW. 

I’ve almost got it (maybe a different f-stop….? …, I’m just standing in my own light….here, let’s try THIS….

I mean it, we’re leaving without you. 

YES, right there, seriously, I’m right behind you. Read a brochure will ya?  Geez, NOTHING’S  working…….

Sound remotely familiar? There seems to be an inverse proportion of need-to-result that happens when an entire group of tourists is cursing your name and the day you ever set eyes on a camera. The more they tap their collective toe wondering what’s taking so looooong, the farther you are away from anything that will, even for an instant, give you a way to get on that bus with a smile on your face. It’s like the boulder is already bearing down on Indiana Jones, and, even as he runs for his life, he still wonders if there’d be a way to go back for just one more necklace….

Dirty Little Secret: there is no such thing as a photo “stop” when you are part of a traveling group. At best it’s a photo “slow down” unless you literally want to shoot from the hip and hope for the best, which doesn’t work in skeet shooting, horseshoes, brain surgery, ….or photography. Dirty Little Secret Two: you are only marginally welcome at the tomb or cathedral  or historically awesome whosis they’re dragging you past, so be grateful we’re letting you in here at all and don’t go all Avedon on us. We know how to handle people like you. We’re taking the next delay out of your bathroom break, wise guy.

A recent trip to the beautiful Memorial Church at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California was that latest  of  many “back on the bus” scenarios in my life, albeit one with a somewhat happy outcome. Dedicated in 1903 by the surviving widow of the school’s founder, Leland Stanford, the church loads the eye with borrowed styles and decorous detail from a half-dozen different architectural periods, and yet, is majestic rather than noisy, a tranquil oasis within a starkly contemporary and busy campus. And, within seconds of having entered its cavernous space as part of a walking campus tour, it becomes obvious that it will be impossible to do anything, image-wise, other than selecting a small part of the story and working against the clock to make a fast (prayerful) grab. No tripods, no careful contemplation; this will be meatball surgery. And the clock is ticking now.

So we ducked inside. With many of the church’s altars and alcoves shrouded in deep shadow, even at midday, choices were going to be limited. A straight-on flash was going to be an obscene waste of time, unless I wanted to see a blown-out glob of white, three feet in front of me, the effect of lighting a flare in a cave. Likewise, bumping my Nikon’s ISO high enough to read a greater amount of detail was going to be a no-score, since the inner darkness was so stark, away from the skylight of the central basilica dome, that I was inviting enough noise to make the whole thing look like a kid’s smudged watercolor. No, I had to find a way to split the difference; Show some of the light and let the darkness alone.

Instead of bracketing anywhere from 3 to 5 shots in hopes of creating a composite high dynamic range image in post production, I took a narrower bracket of two. I jacked the ISO for both of them just a bit, but not enough to get a lethal grunge gumbo once the two were merged. I shot for the bright highlights and tried to compose so that the light’s falloff would suggest the detail I wouldn’t be able to actually show. At least getting a good angle on the basilica’s arches would allow the mind to sketch out the space that couldn’t be adequately lit on the fly. For insurance, I tried the same trick with several other compositions, but by that time my wife was calling my cel from outside the church, wondering if I had fallen into the baptismal font and drowned.

Yes, right there, I’m coming. Oh, are you all waiting for me? Sorry…..

Perhaps its the worst kind of boorish tourism to forget that, when the doors to the world’s special places are opened to you, you are an invited guest, not some battle-hardened newsie on deadline for an editor. I do really want to be nice. However, I really want to go home with a picture,too, and so I remain a work in progress. Perhaps I can be rehabilitated, and, for the sake of my marriage, I should try.

And yet.


PLAN B, C, D…..

San Francisco decides what to give you, weather-wise. You have decide to accept or reject it, picture-wise.


SOME ICONIC SUBJECTS ACTUALLY SUBVERT CREATIVE PHOTOGRAPHY, since they fire a normal human urge to record “your take” of an image that literally millions have taken before. There is a strong temptation to merely simulate or re-create the ideal depictions of such objects, be they skyscrapers or mountains, cathedrals or canyons. There is an inherent trap in this process, of course. Why strive to merely match what others have done, to ape or emulate the “ideal” shot? Why settle for the chance to render a Xerox of someone else’s vision?

However, just because I can recognize this trap doesn’t mean I haven’t fallen into it. Indeed, as recently as last week, I found myself despondent because I was being denied the “perfect” shot of San Francisco’s #1 visual trademark…the Golden Gate Bridge. I was visiting the marvelous new Walt Disney Family Museum, housed inside re-purposed buildings in the Presidio, whose severe, spartan brick buildings are an inspiring reminder of their original role as a line of national defense for this vital port. However, for me in 2012, they were attractive chiefly because they were the last layer of urban development before the bridge. I drooled over the images on the museum’s website. It’s right in their backyard!  Moreover, the only place in the Disney museum where photography is allowed is along a glass walled gallery specifically designed to serve up the perfect shot of Big Red. Perfect, right?

Except that, on the day I visited the museum, a stubborn canopy of fog had refused to clear the bridge towers, even in the clear light of late afternoon sun. There goes plan A. I left the building convinced that I could shoehorn a telephoto shot in between Presidio buildings and still get my “optimum” shot. I soon realized, however, that plan B was also unworkable. The fog stubbornly persisted in eclipsing the top of the south tower, while the property fence in my immediate view was chopping into a clear shot of its  foundations. What remained looked cluttered, wrong, unconventional. Then plan C came into focus. Shoot something. Try to save this. Can I make a composition out of these stark brick blocks of space, with a glimpse of the tower in between? I was on total instinct by this time. My wife was waiting in the car, we were both tired after a day of flying, and it was just a whole helluva lot easier to just walk away. Enter the rationale: The bridge isn’t going anywhere. There have to be a million places to stand and get the “right” shot I want. Run away and live to fight another day. 

And yet.

There was just a twinkling of an idea….not really a fully formed concept, just a seed pod. The bridge is, given the local weather, always in the process of being concealed and revealed. Photographers have made great images of the bridge not only when it can be seen but when it coyly hides, like Salome, beneath the veils of weather. In fact, many of the best pictures of the bridge have been made under adverse conditions. Artistically, I was in good company. The bridge is always teasing, always taunting: come and find me. Try to define me. I dare you to capture me. I am not easy.

I am not obvious. 

To hell with it.

I decided to wedge the partially visible tower between two dead blocks of brick, and make the picture. Like an immigrant who has to look through a dirty window to see a fast, smeared glimpse of Lady Liberty as he enters New York harbor, I knew I was stealing a view, snatching a fragment, a bit of hope, a shard of truth. I had to settle. I had moved plan C up to A position and was determined to live with the choice. Strangely, I will, upon future visits to San Francisco, feel a little cheap taking the “perfect” shot, if it ever presents itself.

I am no longer so certain of the best way to approach this subject. Whether I really got something or whether I am merely rationalizing my long shot in a lousy situation, I can no longer determine. But I am happy with what happened. And that’s supposed to be what this is all about.