By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS PROBABLY HAVE TO HAVE AT LEAST SOME IDEA OF WHERE THEY’RE HEADED in pursuit of an image, or else basic issues like, Where To Point The Car or Which Path To Take can’t be settled. And there is, even for the instinctual process of creation, something to be said for a basic plan. However, every photographer has experienced the wonder of finding oneself arrived at a great picture-making opportunity when, in fact, you were headed someplace completely different. It’s in such moments, places where Plan A becomes Plan B, C, or D, that the excitement happens.
After you capture an image that essentially works, your mind naturally comes to take ownership of it, just as if that picture were your original intention. But this seldom occurs. Pictures aren’t like Grab-And-Go sandwiches, and very few are just waiting there, fully formed, until you wander by and imprison them in your box. Our final choices for photographs are often the destination in a ride with many stops along the way. We might have come to do this, but we wound up modifying, even abandoning our first instinct to get this instead.
The above image is a textbook example of this process. The gorgeous sunset clouds seen here were originally to be the entire composition. The general rule is that skies, by themselves, are usually not sufficiently interesting to be the solo star in a photo, but the light and texture of this particular dusk had convinced me that a minimalist shot might just be possible. However, one of my first framings caught an octotillo shrub in its lower right corner, and that new information sent the picture off in a different direction.
Re-framing to bring the shrub into the entire lower half of the shot and silhouetting it against the sky gave the framing both a sense of scale and depth, and I began to convince myself (moving on to Plan B) that this now two-element picture would be The One. Then a single starling made a landing at the upper right corner of the ocotillo, creating a more obvious initial point of contact for the eye. The viewer would engage the most familiar part of the picture, the bird’s body, then travel leftward to the ocotillo’s jagged tangles, and backwards to the textured sky. Final Plan: C….a three-element image in which the individual parts seemed, at least, to talking with one another.
In the pages of The Normal Eye I keep coming back to this idea of “planned accidents”, or shots that start in one direction and end in another, because the process, once you allow yourself to go with it, can lead to images which, eventually, seem inevitable, as if they never could have been any other way. And those are the ones you keep.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOME OF MY URBAN PHOTOGRAPHY COULD POTENTIALLY STRIKE THE AVERAGE VIEWER as somewhat remote, even a bit cold. It flies in the face of some of the universally held “truths” about so-called street photography. Sometimes it doesn’t even have a face. Or faces.
If the best street shooters are thought to reveal truth in the features of the denizens of all those boulevards, then I might really be at a disadvantage, since many of my images are not about faces.
They are, however, about people.
I tend to use passersby, in city pictures, to several ends. beyond the regular kind of unposed portraiture that is standard “street” orthodoxy. One is scale, that is, how they dominate or are diminished by the sheer size or scope of their surroundings. Some cities seem to swallow people, reducing them to anti-sized props in an architect’s tabletop diorama. I try to show that effect, since, as a city dweller, it affects me visually. Other times, I show people completely silhouetted or swaddled in shadow. This is not because their faces aren’t important, but because I’m trying to accurately show their roles as components in an overall choreography of light, as I would a mailbox or a car. Again, the idea is not to avoid or conceal the stories that may reside in their faces, but to also accentuate their body language, how they occupy a space, and, yes, as abstract design elements in a large still life (okay, that sounds a bit clinical).
I certainly bow to the masters whose controlled ambushes of strangers have captured, in candid facial shots, harrowing, inspiring, or amusing emotions that deepen our understanding of each other. You could rattle off their names as easily as I. But using people in pictures isn’t only a miniature invasion into their features, and certainly isn’t the only way to depict their intentions or dreams.
And then there is the other problem for the street portraitist, in that some faces will remain ciphers, resisting the photographer’s probe, explaining or revealing nothing. In those cases, a face poses more questions than it answers. As usual, the argument is made by the individual picture.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PART OF THE EVOLUTION OF A PHOTOGRAPHER’S EYE is the imparting of new importance to things we have forgotten to see, those everyday objects that line or border our rituals and our daily to-and-froms, but which gradually are rendered invisible because our gaze is focused elsewhere. We fix upon the subway train that we have to catch, but miss the miniature tales buried in brick, steel, rust, entrances and exits. We’ve been down this street a million times, and always pause to peer in the window of, in order, the bakery, the newsstand, the Chinese take-out joint. Across the same street are a dry cleaner, a watch repair shop, and a storefront cathedral. We have never seen them.
Photography involves extracting stories where others see a blank slate, but that means first training ourselves to constantly re-see the things we believe we “know”, only to find that there are stunning revelations mere inches away from those known things. It’s the hardest habit to cultivate, this revealing of new layers in what we assume is the familiar. And yet it’s really the fresh blood that rejuvenates our art when it’s gone anemic.
One trick I try more often than I used to is to pause, after entering a building, to look back at the other side of that entrance…in other words, the view I would see facing me if I were using that entrance as an exit. It’s a very simply thing, but frequently there’s something fresh that presents itself, in something I believed I knew all about.
The above image comes from such an exercise. It’s taken just inside the main entrance to the Brooklyn Public Library, which, as you can see, has a great Art Deco grille of storybook characters over the door. But that’s just as you walk in. Pay equal attention when you’re walking out, and you see a strange bird looming over the entrance (now your exit). But not just any bird. It is, in fact, a rescued statue which once graced the main lobby of the long-departed Brooklyn Eagle newspaper, out of its old context as a symbol of high-flying journalism, but now a reminder of one of the city’s best voices. Best of all, the late afternoon sun projects the silhouettes of the storybook grille onto the eagle and the adjacent wall in an unearthly display of shadow. It’s worth looking back at. Or I could say I am always looking forward to looking back at it.
When looking for something new to photograph, seek out the places in which you’ve seen it all. You’ll never be happier to be proven wrong.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THOSE WHO ADHERE TO THE CLASSIC “RULE OF THIRDS” system of composition often suggest that you imagine your frame with a nine-space grid super-imposed over it, the better to help you place your subject in the greatest place of visual interest. This place is usually at the intersection of several of these grid lines, and, whether or not you strictly adhere to the “thirds” system, it’s useful to compose your shots purposefully, and the grid does give you a kind of subliminal habit of doing just that.
Sometimes, however, I find that the invisible grid can be rendered briefly visible to become a real part of your composition. That is to say, framing through silhouetted patterns can add a little dimension to an otherwise flat image. Leaving some foreground elements deliberately underlit is kind of a double win, in that it eliminates detail that might read as clutter, and helps hem in the parts of the background items you want to most highlight.
These days, with HDR and other facile post-production fixes multiplying like rabbits on Viagra, the trend has been to recover as much detail from darker elements as possible. However, this effect of everything being magically “lit” at one even level can be a little jarring since it clearly runs counter to the way we truly see. It’s great for novel or fantasy shots, but the good old-fashioned silhouette is the most elemental way to add the perception of depth to a scene as well as steering attention wherever you need it. Shadows can set the stage for certain images in a dramatic fashion.
Cheap. Fast. Easy. Repeat.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE FAMILIAR ADMONITION FROM THE HIPPOCRATIC OATH, the exhortation for doctors to, “First, Do No Harm” has applications to many kinds of enterprises beyond the scope of medicine, photography among them. We are so used to editing, arranging, scouting, rehearsing and re-imagining reality that sometimes, we need merely to eavesdrop on it.
Some pictures are so complete in themselves that, indeed, even minimal interference from a photographer is a bridge too far. Sometimes such images come as welcome relief after a long, unproductive spell of trying to force subjects into our cameras, only to have them wriggle away like so much conceptual smoke. I recently underwent several successive days of such frustration in, of all things, my own home town, fighting quirky weather, blocked access, and a blank wall of my own mental making. I finally found something I can use in (say it all together) the last place I was looking.
In fact, it was a place I hadn’t wanted to be at all.
Columbus, Ohio at night in winter is lots of things, but it’s seldom conducive to any urge more adventurous than reheating the Irish coffee and throwing another log on the fire. At my age, there’s something about winter and going out after sunset that screams “bad idea” to me, and I was reluctant to accept a dinner invite that actually involved my schlepping across the tundra from the outskirts to the heart of downtown. Finally, it was the lure of lox and bagel at Katzinger’s deli, not my artistic wanderlust, that wrenched me loose from hearth and home, and into range of some lovely picture-making territory.
The German Village neighborhood, along the city’s southern edge, has, for over a century, remained one of the most completely intact caches of ethnic architecture in central Ohio, its twisty brick streets evoking a mini-Deutschland from a simpler time. Its antique street lamps, shuttered windows and bricked-in gartens have been an arts and party destination for generations of visitors, casting its spell on me clear back in high school. Arriving early for my trek to Katzie’s, I took advantage of the extra ten minutes to wander down a few familiar old streets, hoping they could provide something….unfamiliar.
The recently melted snowfall of several days prior still lent a warm glaze to the cobbled alleyways, and I soon found myself with city scenes that evoked a wonderful mood with absolutely minimal effort. The light was minimal as well, often coming from just one orange sodium-vapor street lamp, and it made sense to make them the central focus of any shots I was to take, allowing the eye to be led naturally from the illuminated streets at the front of the frame clear on back to the light’s source.
Using my default lens, a 35mm prime at maximum f/1.8 aperture, and an acceptable amount of noise at ISO 800, I clicked away like mad, shooting up and down Blenkner Street, first toward Third Street, then back around toward High. I didn’t try to rescue the details in the shadows, but let the city more or less do its own lighting with the old streets. I capped my lens, stole away like the lucky thief I had become, and headed for dinner.
The lox was great, too. Historic, in fact.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS SPEND HALF THEIR LIVES TRYING TO PUT AS MUCH INFORMATION INTO THEIR IMAGES AS POSSIBLE, and the other half trying to remove as much as practicable. Both efforts are in service of the telling of stories, and both approaches are dictated by what a particular photograph is trying to convey.
Sometimes you need the cast of The Ten Commandments to say “humanity”. Other times, just a whisper, an essence of two people talking carries the entire message. That’s where I wound up the other day…with one woman and one very young boy.
Their shared mission was a simple one: hooking up an iPhone Facetime visit with an aunt half a country away. Nothing dramatic, and yet plenty of story to fill a frame with. Story enough, it turned out, for me to get away with weeding out nearly all visual information in the picture, and yet have enough to work with. Time, of course, was also a factor in my choice, since I would be losing a special moment if I stepped into a dark hall and spent precious moments trying to mine it for extra light.
In a second, I realized that silhouettes would carry the magic of the moment without any help from me. What would it matter if I could see the color of my subjects’ clothing, the detail in their hair, even the look on their faces? In short, what would I gain trying to massage an image that was already perfectly eloquent in shadow?
I exposed for the floor in the hall and let everything else go. There was plenty of story there already.
I just had to get out of its way.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE TITLE OF THIS POST IS ONE OF MY FAVORITE LINES IN ALL OF BOB DYLAN’S PRODIGIOUS OUTPUT, coming from The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest, on the John Wesley Harding album. I often pop the phrase into casual conversations where it’s clear that more heat, rather than light, has been generated. Nothing to see here, folks. No new ground has been broken. No fresh truth has been unearthed.
Nothing is revealed.
This phrase came back to me a while back when looking at the raw statistics for Instagram, which indicates that, currently, over 90,000,000 images on the foto-share service currently bear the hashtag “#me”. Call them selfies, call them an epidemic of narcissism, call them banal.
But don’t, for the love of God, call them portraits.
How has it come to this? How can merely pointing a phone camera back at your own punim, and saturating it with distortion and over-amped flash, pass for a telling testament to who you are, what you dream, what you represent in the world?
Of course, the tselfie tsunami does none of these things. It actually puts distance, if not actual barriers, between your real self and the world, by creating some lifeless avatar to ward off true discovery of yourself by, well, anyone. By comparison, even the four-for-a-quarter snaps of antique photo booths are searing documents of truth.
Photography’s evolution is illuminated by the great masters who stepped in front of their own cameras
to try to give testimony, recording innovative, penetrating evidence of who they were. Currently, a show featuring one of the medium’s greatest pioneers in this area, Julia Margaret Cameron, is packing them in at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and with good reason. Cameron’s attempts to capture herself in not only natural but fantastic settings led the way for interpretive portraitists from Richard Avedon to Annie Liebowitz. Along the way, she learned what to look for, and immortalize, in the faces of others, including Alfred Lord Tennyson, Charles Darwin, Robert Browning, and other bright lights of the 19th century.
Oddly, none of her work was done by crooking her arm 90 degrees back toward her booze-flushed face at a kegger and saying “cheese.”
I’ve written before, in these pages, of the real value of self-portraits as a teaching tool and experimental lab for photographic technique. By contrast, “Selfies” are false faces created to keep the world away, not invite it in. And they remind us, courtesy of Bobby D., of the three worse words of insult that can ever be aimed at any photograph, anywhere:
Nothing is revealed.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.
- Portraits by Julia Margaret Cameron, One of Photography’s Early Masters, on Display at the Met (muirhousepubs.wordpress.com)
- Julia Margaret Cameron: Pioneer of Modern Glamour Photography? (bigthink.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PAINTERS INSTINCTIVELY KNOW WHEN IT’S TIME TO REVEAL, AND WHEN IT’S BEST TO CONCEAL. Dark passages or hidden detail within a painting are accepted as part of the storytelling process. That is, what you don’t see can be as valuable a visual element as what you’ve chosen to show. By contrast, many photographers seem to come to this conclusion late , if ever. That is, we’re a little twitchy at not being able to illuminate every corner of our frame, to accurately report all the detail we see.
We try to show everything, and, in so doing, we defeat mystery, denying the viewer his own investigative journey. We insist on making everything obvious. Unlike painters, we don’t trust the darkness. We never “leave them wanting more”.
Fortunately, fate occasionally forces our hand.
The image at the top of this post started out as an attempt to capture the activity of an entire family that was walking their dog near a break in the dense trees that line the creek at Red Rocks Crossing in Sedona, Arizona. The contrast between the truly dark walking paths beneath the trees and the hyper-lit creek and surrounding hardpan is like night and day. The red rocks and anything near them, especially in the noonday sun, reflect back an intense amount of glare, so if your shots are going to include both shady foliage and sunlit areas, you’re going to have to expose for either one or the other. You might be able to get a wider range of tones by bracketing exposures to be combined later in post-processing, but for a handheld shot of moving people, your choices are limited.
I was trying to come to terms with this “either/or” decision when nearly everyone in the family moved away from the creek and into the dense foliage, leaving only one small boy idling at creekside. Feeling my chance of capturing anything draining away, I exposed for the creek, rendering the boy as a silhouette just as he made a break into the woods to rejoin his family. No chance to show detail in his face or figure: he would just be a dark shape against a backdrop of color. The decision to “make things more complicated” had already been taken away from me.
I had what I had.
Turns out that I could not have said “little boy” any better with twice the options. The picture says what it needs to say and does so quietly. No need to over-explain or over-decorate the thing. Darkness had asserted itself as part of the image, and did a better storytelling job all by itself.
I had much more time to calculate many other shots that day, but few of my “plans” panned out as well as the image where I relinquished control completely.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter #MPnormaleye
- Red Rock Love (missfunshine.wordpress.com)