By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS YOU READ THIS, I WILL BE SAILING ACROSS YET ANOTHER ANNUAL MERIDIAN, my shaky little rowboat meekly tying up at the dock of one more birthday. Many years, I am astonished to find the scruffy little skiff of my life still afloat: it’s certainly not due to my skills as a navigator or seaman, but rather the kind fortune of the currents, the gentle mercy of the waves. Life is an ocean which can and does engulf us all, sometimes in a series of undulations, sometimes in surges of anger. But eventually we all head to the same damp destiny. Chalking up one more year on the topside of the foam doesn’t create a feeling of relief so much as a tsunami of amazement.
In years past, like many of us, I have indulged my vanity by taking at least a quick-snap selfie to mark the occasion, as if my continuing to draw breath was, in itself, some kind of achievement. Of course, in my quieter moments, I realize that I am, in the main, merely a lucky idiot, far more fortunate than smart. But, when I consider the role my wife Marian has played in my ongoing survival…..well, then, I am looking at a kind of genius, an emotional genius that has done more than merely protect and value me. Better than knowing my worse flaws, she has systematically outfoxed them at every turn. And in doing that, she has not only bought me time, she has made that time burn brighter than any birthday candle.
And so, this year, I’m giving the back-patting selfie a rest, and filing this small report with an image of her that, over the years, has given me courage and comfort. On one level, it’s merely a woman looking out to sea. For me, however, it’s the nature of that looking, and the deep concentration that goes with it. Marian never just glances: she evaluates, she catalogues hopes and fears: she shuffles the cards of a million scenarios and masterminds the selection of the perfect hand. As I said, a kind of genius.
So Happy My Birthday to Marian, my Magellan, my compass, my north star. Without her, I’d be lucky to read the map of my own mind. With her, I can journey on.
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
LOTS OF OUR BEST PHOTOGRAPHS ARE, EXCUSE THE EXPRESSION, snap judgements. Sometimes a composition simply seems to come fully formed, ready to jump intact into the camera, with no reasonable way to improve on a shot that is 99% pure impulse. Some of these gift moments are so seductive that we may not think to keep shooting beyond what we’ve perceived as the ideal moment. But more shooting may be just what we need.
Images that involve very fast-moving events may only have one key instant where the real storytelling power of the shot comes to a climax, with everything after seen as progressively less dramatic. The second after a baseball is hit: the relaxed smile after the birthday candles are blown out. Think, if you will, of a straight news or journalism image. Every second after the Hindenburg explodes is less and less intense.
But many images can be re-imagined second-by-second, with additional takes offering the photographer vastly different outcomes and choices. In the series shown here, I originally fell in love with the look of sunset on a wooded trail. My first instinct was that the receding path was everything I needed, and I shot the first frame not thinking there would even be a second. My wife, however, decided to walk into the space unexpectedly, and I decided to click additional frames every few seconds as she walked toward the shot’s horizon. She starts off in the lower right corner and walks gently left as she climbs the slight rise in the path, causing her hair to catch a sun flare in the second shot, and placing her in central importance in the composition. By the last shot, however, she is a complete silhouette at the top of the frame, taking her far enough “up” to restore the path to its original prominence with her as a mere accent.
Which shot to take? Anyone’s call, but the point here is that, by continuing to shoot, I had four images to choose from, all with very individualized dynamics, none of which would have been available to me if I’d just decided that my first shot was my best and settled. There will be times when the fullest storytelling power of a photograph is all present right there in your first instinctive snap. When you have time, however, learning to compose on the run can force you to keep re-visualizing your way to lots of other possibilities.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WINDOW LIGHT IS A BOY PHOTOGRAPHER’S BEST FRIEND. The glass usually acts like a diffuser, softening and warming the rays as they enter, making for intimate portrait and street shots. Window light tends to wrap around the objects in its path, adding a look of depth and solidity to furniture and people. It’s also uncomplicated, universally available, and free. And that’s great for cell phone cameras.
At this writing, Apple’s next iPhone will soon up the ante on both resolution and light sensitivity, meaning that more and more shots will be saved that just a few years ago would have been lost, as the mobile wars give us more features, more control, and more decision-making options that recently belonged only to DSLRs and other upper-end product. That will mean that the cameras will perform better with less light than ever before, over-coming a key weakness of early mobiles.
That weakness centered on how the camera would deal with low-light situations, which was to open to its widest aperture and jack up the ISO, often resulting is grungy, smudgy images. Turn too many inches away from prime light (say a generous window in daytime) and, yes, you would get a picture, but, boy, was it ever dirty, the noise destroying the subtle gradation of tones from light to dark and often compromising sharpness. Those days are about to end, and when they do, people will have to seriously ask if they even need to lug traditional imaging gear with them, when Little Big Boy in their back pocket is bringing the “A” game with greater consistency.
As this new age dawns, experiment with single-point window light to see how clean an image it will deliver on a cel phone. Pivot away from the light by a few inches or feet, and compare the quality of the images as you veer deeper into shadow. You will soon know just how far you can push your particular device before the noise starts creeping in, and having that limit in your head will help you assess a scenario and shoot faster, with better results. Camera phones, at least at their present state of development, will only do so much, but you may be surprised at just how high their top end actually is. You need not miss a great shot just because you left your Leica in your other pants. As usual, the answer is, Always Be Shooting.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS PROGRESS FROM WHAT I CALL SNAPSHOT MENTALITY TO “CONTACT SHEET” MENTALITY as we move from eager beginners to seasoned shooters. Many of the transitional behaviors are familiar: we actually learn what our cameras can do, we begin to pre-visualize shots, we avoid 9 out of the 10 most common errors, etc. However, one of the vestiges of snapshot mentality that lingers a while is the tendency to “settle”, to be, in effect, grateful that our snap resulted in any kind of a shot, then moving too quickly on to the next subject. It’s a little like marrying the first boy that ever asked you out, and it can prevent your hanging around long enough to go beyond getting “a” shot to land “the” shot.
In snapshot mentality, we’re grateful we got anything. Oh, good, it came out. In contact sheet mentality, we look for as many ways to visualize something as possible, like the film guys who shot ten rolls to get three pictures, seeing all their possibilities laid side-by-side on a contact sheet. The film guys stood in the batter’s box long enough to make a home run out one of all those pitched balls. With the snapshot guy, however, it’s make-or-break on a single take. I don’t like the odds. My corollary to the adage always be shooting would be always shoot more.
All of which is to plead with you to please, please over-shoot, especially with dynamic light conditions that can change dramatically from second to second. In the shot at the top, I was contending with speedily rolling overcast, the kind of sun-clouds-sun rotation that happens when a brief rain shower rolls through. My story was simply: it’s early morning and it just rained. This first shot got these basics across, and, if I were thinking like a snapshot photographer, I would have rejoiced that I nailed the composition and quit while I was ahead. However, something told me to wait, and sure enough, a brighter patch of sunshine, just a minute later, gave me a color boost that popped the page much more effectively. Same settings, same composition. The one variable: the patience to play what is, for shooters, a game of inches. A small difference. But a difference, nonetheless.
And that’s what these little blurbs are. Not examples of groundbreaking art, just illustrations of the different ways to approach a problem. Digital shooting is cheap shooting, nearly free most of the time. Shouldn’t we, then, give ourselves at least as many editing choices as film guys who shot rolls of “maybes” at great expense, in search of their “yeses”? Hmm?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PICK ANY PHOTOGRAPHIC ERA YOU LIKE, and most of the available wisdom (or literature) will concentrate on honoring some arbitrary list of rules for “successful” pictures. On balance, however, relatively few tutorials mention the needful option of breaking said rules, of making a picture without strict adherence to whatever commandments the photo gods have handed down from the mountain. It’s my contention that an art form defined narrowly by mere obedience is bucking for obsolescence.
It’d be one thing if minding your manners and coloring inside the lines guaranteed amazing images. But it doesn’t, any more than the flawless use of grammar guarantees that you’ll churn out the great American novel. Photography was created by rebels and outlaws, not academics and accountants. Hew too close to the golden rules of focus, exposure, composition or subject, and you may inadvertently gut the medium of its real power, the power to capture and communicate some kind of visual verity.
A photograph is a story, and when it’s told honestly, all the technical niceties of technique take a back seat to that story’s raw impact. The above shot is a great example of this, although the masters of pure form could take points off of it for one technical reason or another. My niece snapped this marvelous image of her three young sons, and it knocked me over to the point that I asked her permission to make it the centerpiece of this article. Here, in an instant, she has managed to seize what we all chase: joy, love, simplicity, and yes, truth. Her boys’ faces retain all the explosive energy of youth as they share something only the three of them understand, but which they also share with anyone who has ever been a boy. This image happens at the speed of life.
I’ve seen many a marvelous camera produce mundane pictures, and I’ve seen five-dollar cardboard FunSavers bring home shots that remind us all of why we love to do this. Some images are great because we obeyed all the laws. Some are great because we threw the rule book out the window for a moment and just concentrated on telling the truth.
You couldn’t make this picture more real with a thousand Leicas. And what else are we really trying to do?
A PICTURE, WHEN IT TRULY COMMUNICATES, isn’t worth a thousand words. The comforting cliché notwithstanding, a great picture goes beyond words, making its emotional and intellectual connection at a speed that no poet can compete with. The world’s most enduring images carry messages on a visceral network that operates outside the spoken or written word. It’s not better, but it most assuredly is unique.
Most Veteran’s Days are occasions of solemnity, and no amount of reverence or respect can begin to counterbalance the astonishing sacrifice that fewer and fewer of us make for more and more of us. As Lincoln said at Gettysburg, there’s a limit to what our words, even our most loving, well-intended words, can do to consecrate that sacrifice further.
But images can help, and have acted as a kind of mental shorthand since the first shutter click. And along with sad remembrance should come pictures of joy, of victory, of survival.
Of a sailor and a nurse.
Alfred Eisenstaedt, the legendary photojournalist best known for his decades at Life magazine, did, on V-J day in Times Square in 1945, what millions of scribes, wits both sharp and dull, couldn’t do. He produced a single photograph which captured the complete impact of an experience shared by millions, distilled down to one kiss. The subjects were strangers to him, and to this day, their faces largely remain a mystery to the world. “Eisie”, as his friends called him, recalled the moment:
In Times Square on V.J. Day I saw a sailor running along the street grabbing any and every girl in sight. Whether she was a grandmother, stout, thin, old, it didn’t make a difference. I was running ahead of him with my Leica, looking back over my shoulder, but none of the pictures that were possible pleased me. Then suddenly, in a flash, I saw something white being grabbed. I turned around and clicked the moment the sailor kissed the nurse. If she had been dressed in a dark dress I would never have taken the picture. If the sailor had worn a white uniform, the same. I took exactly four pictures. It was done within a few seconds.
Those few seconds have been frozen in time as one of the world’s most treasured memories, the streamlined depiction of all the pent-up emotions of war: all the longing, all the sacrifice, all the relief, all the giddy delight in just being young and alive. A happiness in having come through the storm. Eisie’s photo is more than just an instant of lucky reporting: it’s a toast, to life itself. That’s what all the fighting was about anyway, really. That’s what all of those men and women in uniform gave us, and still give us. And, for photographers the world over, it is also an enduring reminder from a master:
“This, boys and girls, is how it’s done.”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I HAVE NEVER PARTICIPATED IN THE STRANGE NEW RITUAL known as “Throwback Thursday”, the terminally adorable craze involving the online resurrection of antique photos of oneself or friends, the purpose of which is apparently to celebrate our poor tonsorial and wardrobe choices of bygone days. I keep most historic depictions of myself under lock and key for a reason, and making myself look retroactively more idiotic than I am already, well, someone needs to explain to me where the “fun” part comes in. Just because I was once stupid enough to sport a shag cut doesn’t mean a record of that sad choice constitutes entertainment in the interweb age.
As a photographer, however, I can certainly see the wisdom of re-evaluating the images themselves, meaning how they were shot, or whether, under the microscopes of time and wisdom, they deserve to be aesthetically exonerated. Humane anglers have always practiced the “throw the small ones back” rule when fishing, the idea being that, given a chance, a minnow might grow into a respectable catch, and I think it’s normal to revisit old photos from time to time, as a record of one’s growth. I would even argue that a “Fishing Friday” each week would be good for the needful habit of self-editing, or just learning to see, no less than spending one’s Thursdays with painful reminders that hot pants really aren’t a fashion statement.
Yes, I am an aging crank. And yes, I do believe, as Yogi Berra once said, that nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. But I also believe in learning from one’s photographic mistakes, and reviewing old prints and slides actually does give you a pretty reliable timeline on your development. As a matter of fact, I am on record as believing that failures are far more instructive than successes when it comes to photography. You study and ache and cogitate over failures, whereas you seldom question a success at all. Coming up short just nags at you more, and the surprising thing about latter-day re-examinations of your photographic work is that you will also find things that actually worked, shots that, for some reason, you originally rejected.
Recently, the Metropolitan Art Museum mounted a show of Garry Winogrand’s amazing street work drawn from the hundreds of thousands of images that he shot but never processed or saw within his own lifetime. His is an extreme case, but, even at our end of the craft, we generate so many photos over a lifetime that we are constantly challenged to have a true sense of what we did even last year, much less decades ago. When we “throw back” to images of our dear departed dog blowing out his birthday candles, we should also shovel into the past for the instructive, potentially revelatory work that might be lurking in other shoeboxes. It’s free education.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
OUR GRADE SCHOOL HISTORY CLASSES DRUMMED CERTAIN NAMES INTO OUR HEADS AS THE “EXCLUSIVE” CREATORS of many of the wonders of the modern age. We can still bark back many of those names without any prompting, saluting the Edisons, Bells, and Fords of the early part of the 20th century and the Jobses and Gateses of its final years. However, as we grew older, we realized that the births of many of our favorite geegaws (television, for example) can’t be traced to a single auteur. And when it comes to photography, their are too many fathers and mothers in all ends of the medium to even enumerate.
Several tinkerer-wizards do deserve singling out, however, especially when it comes to the mindset that all of us in the present era share that photography ought to be immediate and easy. And, in a very real way, both of these luxuries were born in the mind of a single man, Dean Peterson, who presided over half a dozen revolutions in the technology of picture making, most of his own creation. As an engineer at Eastman Kodak in the early ’60’s, Dean created and developed the Instamatic camera, and, in so doing, changed the world’s attitude toward photography in a way every bit as dramatic as George Eastman’s introduction of cheap roll film in the late 1800’s. Peterson’s new wrinkle: get rid of the roll.
Or, more precisely, get rid of loose film’s imprecise process for being loaded into the camera, which frequently ruined either single exposures or entire rolls, depending on one’s fumble-fingered luck. Peterson’s answer was a self-contained drop-in cartridge, pre-loaded with film and sealed against light. Once inside the camera, it was the cartridge itself that largely advanced the film, eliminating unwanted double-exposures and making the engineering cost of the host camera body remarkably cheap. Peterson followed Eastman’s idea of a fixed-focus camera with a pre-set exposure designed for daylight film, and added a small module to fire a single flashbulb with the help of an internal battery. Follow-up models of the Instamatic would move to flashcubes, an internal flash that could operate without bulbs or batteries, a more streamlined “pocket Instamatic” body, and even an upgrade edition that would accept external lenses.
With sales of over 70 million units within ten years, the Instamatic created Kodak’s second golden age of market supremacy. As for Dean Peterson, he was just warming up. His second-generation insta-cameras, developed at Honeywell in the early ’70’s, incorporated auto-focus, off-the-film metering, auto-advance and built-in electronic flash into the world’s first higher-end point-and-shoots. His later work also included the invention of a 3d film camera for Nimslo, high-speed video units for Kodak, and, just before his death in 2004, early mechanical systems that later contributed to tablet computer design.
Along the way, Peterson made multiple millions for Kodak by amping up the worldwide numbers of amateur photographers, even as he slashed the costs of manufacturing, thereby maximizing the profit in his inventions. As with most forward leaps in photographic development, Dean Peterson’s work eliminated barriers to picture-taking, and when that is accomplished, the number of shooters and the sheer volume of their output rockets ahead the world over. George Eastman’s legendary boast that “you press the button and we do the rest” continues to resonate through our smartphones and iPads, because Dean Peterson, back in 1963, thought, what the heck, it ought to be simpler to load a camera.
BY MICHAEL PERKINS
I’VE BEEN TRYING TO FIND A WAY TO DESCRIBE THE COMBINATION OF HOPE AND ANXIETY THAT ATTENDS MY EVERY USE OF A SMARTPHONE CAMERA. Coming, as do many geezers of my era, from a tradition of full-function, hands-on, manual cameras, I have had a tough time embracing these miraculous devices, simply because of the very intuitive results that delight most other people.
But: it’s a little more complicated than my merely being a control freak or a techno-snob.
What’s always perplexing to me is that I feel that the camera is making far too many choices that it “assumes” I will be fine with, even though, in many cases, I am flat-out amazed at how close the camera delivers the very image I had in mind in the first place. It doesn’t exactly make one feel indispensable to the process of picture-making, but that’s a bug inside my own head and I gotta deal with it.
I think what I’m feeling, most of the time, is what I call the “Polaroid Effect”. To crowd around family or friends just moments after clicking off a memory with the world’s first true instant film cameras, those bulky bricks of the Mad Men era, was to share a collectively held breath: would it work? Did I get it right? Then as now, many “serious” photographers were reluctant to trust a Polaroid over their Leicas or Rolliflexes. Debate raged over the quality of the color, the impermanence of the prints, the limited lenses, the lack of negatives, and so on. Well, said the experts, any idiot can take a picture with this.
Well, that was the point, wasn’t it? And some of us “idiots” learned, eventually, to take good pictures, and moved on to other cameras, other lenses, better pictures, a better eye. But there was that maddening wait to see if you had lucked out with those square little glimpses of life. The uncertainty of trusting this…machine to get your pictures right.
And yet look at the above image. I asked a lot in this frame, with wild amounts of burning hot sunlight, deep shadows, and every kind of contrast in between just begging for the camera to blow it. It didn’t. I’m actually proud of this picture. I can’t dismiss these devices just because they nudge me out of my comfort zone.
Smartphone cameras truly extend your reach. They go where bulkier cameras don’t go, prevent more moments from being lost, and are in a constantly upward curve of technical improvement. People can and do make astounding pictures with them, and I have to remind myself that the ultimate choice…that of what to shoot, can never be taken away just because the camera I’m holding is engineered to protect me from my own mistakes.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE SEEMS TO BE TWO SETS OF RULES WHEN IT COMES TO CANDID PHOTOGRAPHY.
It seems size does matter.
Let me explain.
The physical dimensions of cameras are an unspoken code for the comfort level we extend to the photographers behind them. This may go back to the very first days of the medium, when all cameras were obtrusively large and obvious. Getting your picture “took” was a formal, intentional thing, and that bulky machine was there to record something permanent, important. Contrast that with the appearance , at the end of the 19th century, of the Kodak Brownie, the first genuine “everyman” camera. Small. Personal. Informal. Most of all, non-threatening.
Jump to the present day and the pronounced size difference between compact cameras and DSLRs, a distinction which still signals whether a photomaker is perceived as friend or foe. “Friend” is the guy who quickly snaps a picture of you and your friends blowing out birthday candles with his cute little Fuji or iPhone. “Foe” is more likely the guy taking time to frame a shot while hiding his predatory face behind a big scary Nikon….since he’s the “serious” photographer, thus less trustworthy. Is he after something? Is he trying to catch me doing something stupid, or worse, actually revelatory? Is he trying to imprison my soul in his box?
This binary reaction….good camera, bad camera…is deeply rooted in our collective DNA. It’s understandable. But it’s illogical.
Seriously, consider the twin assaults that digital media and miniaturization have launched on the concept of privacy in recent decades. Ponder the sheer ubiquity of all those millions of new “friendly” little phones. Contemplate the invasion represented by the indiscriminate, relentless posting of giga-hunks of previously personal moments on social networks, then tell me how the presence of more formal, “foe” cameras represents anything close to the same level of risk or exposure. And yet it is the purse-sized camera that is regarded in public places as benign, while the DSLR is far more likely to be rousted by mall cops acting as self-appointed foto sheriffs.
I’m not saying for a moment that there shouldn’t be civility, decency, respect and restraint practiced by photographers who are, however briefly, entering the personal space of strangers. That’s just common sense. I always feel horrible when I think my presence has caused my subjects to cringe or twitch. However, I think it’s time that, for candid photography, there be a single set of rules on the concept of comfy versus confrontational.
- Kodak Brownie Reimagined as Vintage iPhone Dock (iphonesavior.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I AM AMAZINGLY BLESSED TO BE ENTERING OLD AGE, STILL TRAILING MY FATHER BY ABOUT TWENTY-THREE YEARS. Defying the odds, statistical probabilities, and luck, my personal North Star is still, at 84, providing me with a point of light to steer by. I cannot imagine a world in which he is not just a few miles ahead of me, gently insisting, “this way.” And, years after the worst the world has to offer has long since stopped generating any panic in me, the thought of life without him remains unimaginable, like trying to envision the world without gravity, or sunlight.
I can’t begin to catalogue the thousands of ways his wisdom and patience have tempered and shaped me, but it’s worth singling out his influence on my visual sense and curiosity as a photographer. I remember his intrepid search for beauty, armed with the simple tool of a Kodak Pony 828 camera, a device which both intrigued and frustrated him. During my childhood, the Pony was the official recorder of dreams, events, and possibility for the Perkins clan. We all cheered when it delivered what Dad saw in his mind’s eye. We all offered sympathy and encouragement when he asked it to see beyond its powers, when a set of Kodachrome slides entered the “better luck next time” category.
As a designer and illustrator for North American Aviation, then, later, as a fine arts teacher, he had a developed eye for beauty, a genuine instinct for how a visual story was framed and shown. Armed with my first cheap plastic camera, I only knew I wanted my images to be as good as his own. His eagerness became my ambition, and, half a lifetime later, I still regard a picture as “good” if the old man sees something in it.
Like many photographers major and minor, I am happy to make my father a subject in my own work. I am recording, interpreting and saluting his life all at once, and trying, in my halting way, to capture, in his face, all of the wisdom I have drawn from him over a lifetime. It’s a tall order, but he always taught me to go a little bit beyond what you think you can deliver. I remember him pushing the Kodak Pony to its limits, and beyond, in impossible situations. Some projects landed with a clunk, but it was always about the next frame, the coming opportunity.
There was…is….no bad photograph. Just mileage markers on the way, toward “gee, who knows?”
Thank you, Dad, for showing me that the journey is everything.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
OFTEN, THE SHOT YOU GET HAPPENS ON THE WAY TO THE SHOT YOU THOUGHT YOU WANTED. We all like to think we are operating under some kind of “master plan”, proceeding along a Spock-o-logical path of reason, toward a guaranteed ( and stunning) result, but, hey, this is photography, so, yeah, forget all that.
Night shots are nearly always a series of surprises/rude shocks for me, since sculpting or harvesting light after dark is a completely different skill from what’s used in the daytime. Even small tweaks in my approach to a given subject result in wild variances in the finished product, and so I often sacrifice “the shot” that I had my heart set on for the one which blossomed out of the moment.
This is all French for “lucky accident”. I’d love to attribute it to my own adventurous intellect and godlike talent, but, again, this is photography, so, yeah, forget all about that, too.
So, as to the image up top: in recent years, I have pulled away from the lifelong habit of making time exposures on a tripod, given the progressively better light-gathering range of newer digital sensors, not to mention the convenience of not having to haul around extra hardware. Spotting this building just after dusk outside my hotel the other night, however, I decided I had the time and vantage point to take a long enough exposure to illuminate the building fully and capture some light trails from the passing traffic.
Minutes before setting up my ‘pod, I had taken an earlier snap with nothing but available light, a relatively slow shutter speed and an ISO of 500 , but hadn’t seriously looked at it: traditional thinking told me I could do better with the time exposure. However, when comparing the two shots later, the longer, brighter exposure drained the building of its edgier, natural shadow-casting features, versus the edgier, somber, burnt-orange look of it in the snapshot. The handheld image also rendered the post-dusk sky as a rich blue, while the longer shot lost the entire sky in black. I wanted the building to project a slight air of mystery, which the longer shot completely bleached away. I knew that the snapshot was a bit noisy, but the better overall “feel” of the shot made the trade-off easier to live with. I could also survive without the light trails.
Time exposures render an idealized effect when rendering night-time objects, not an accurate recording of “what I saw”. Continual experimentation can sometimes modulate that effect, but in this case, the snatch-and-grab image won the day. Next time, everything will be different, from subject to result. After all, this is photography.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
LOOKING OVER MY LIFETIME “FAIL” PHOTOGRAPHS, FROM EARLIEST TO LATEST, it’s pretty easy to make a short list of the three main problems with nearly all of them, to wit:
Too Much Stuff Going On.
I Don’t Know Where I’m Supposed To Be Looking.
Okay, you got me. It’s the same problem re-worded three ways. And that’s the point, not only with my snafus but with nearly other picture that fails to connect with anybody, anywhere. As salesmen do, photographers are always “asking for the order”, or, in this case, the attention of the viewer. Often we can’t be there when our most earnest work is seen by others. If the images don’t effectively say, this is the point of the picture, then we haven’t closed the deal.
It’s not simple, but, yeah, it is that simple.
If we don’t properly direct people to the main focus of our story, then we leave our audiences wandering in the woods, looking for a way out. Is it this path? Or this one?
In our present era, where it’s possible to properly expose nearly everything in the frame, we sometimes lose a connection to the darkness, as a way to cloak the unimportant, to minimize distraction, to force the view into a succinct part of the image. Nothing says don’t look here like a big patch of black, and if we spend too much time trying to show everything in full illumination, we could be throwing away our simplest and best prop.
In the above picture of my beautiful Marian, I had one simple mission, really. Show that soft sleeping face. A little texture from the nearby pillows works all right, but I’m just going to waste time and spontaneity rigging up a tripod to expose long enough to show extra detail in the chair she’s on, her sweatshirt, or any other surrounding stuff, and for what? Main point to consider: she’s sleeping, and (trust me) sleeping lightly, so one extra click might be just enough to end her catnap (hint: reject this option). Other point: taking extra trial-and-error shots just to show other elements in the room will give nothing to the picture. Make it a snapshot, jack up the ISO enough to get her face, and live with the extra digital noise. Click and done.
For better or worse.
Composition-wise, that’s often the choice. If you can’t make it better, for #%$&!’s sake don’t make it worse.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOMETIMES THROWING EVERYTHING INTO THE POT MAKES FOR BETTER STEW. Yeah, of course a simple bowl of tomato soup can be elegant, understated. But so can pitching every stray ingredient into the mix and hoping the carrots play nice with the asparagus. Matter of taste depending on one’s mood.
So it goes with street photography. Some insist that isolating a single story, a singular face, a tightly framed little drama is the way to go. And that is certainly true much of the time. But so can casting a wide net, framing a grand, interactive ballet of conflicting lives and destinations. It’s like the concentrated, two-man drama of Waiting For Godot versus the teeming crowd scenes of The Ten Commandments. Both vibes come from the street. Just depends on what story we’re telling today.
From the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, the great street photog of the mid-20th century, I learned to love the seeming randomness of crowds and their competing destinies. HCB was a genius at showing that something wonderful was about to happen, and I love to see him capturing the moment before there even is a moment. His still images fairly beg to be set into motion: you are dying to see how this all comes out. If HCB is new to your eye, I beg you, seek him out. His work is a revelation, a quiet classroom of seeing sense.
I have posted both quiet stories and big loud parades to these pages. Both have their appeal, and both demand a discipline and a selective eye, which means I have a few light years’ worth of learning before me in both areas. That’s the great thing about art. You can’t get done. You can be on the way, but you will not get there. Not if you’re honest with yourself.
For the viewer, myself included, you have to go beyond “snap looking” which is the audience’s equivalent of “snapshooting”. Some images require that you linger, just as some wines are to be sipped instead of guzzled. Slowing down when viewing a frame is the best tribute to whatever pauses the photographer took in creating it in the first place. This picture business is truly a shared project between creator and user.
Gosh, I feel all brotherly and warm-hearted today.
Sort of an urge to be part of the crowd.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YEARS AFTER, AS A YOUNG BOY, I FIRST SAW KODACHROME SLIDES PROJECTED ONTO OUR LIVING ROOM WALL, I learned that the first popular projectors had actually been called “magic lanterns” How right they were, and what an incredible spell these flashes of color and light wove for a little boy breathless in the familiar, yet miraculous dark.
It wasn’t that, as a family, we didn’t have dozens of albums crammed with traditionally processed prints of our most treasured moments. It’s just that, in the shadows, those clear, color-soaked images, half a wall in size, took on a life of their own. Bigger. More immediate. And as communal as a trip to the theatre. Only this was our theatre….our lore, our legend, writ large, compelling somehow in its size and scale.
Father’s Day is always a poignant time for me, since my life is insanely blessed. For me to be in the last third of my own life, and to still have the author of so many of my dreams still on the scene, still available to teach and direct my visions, as he did so ably then….well, it’s everything, that’s all.
As a father myself, I learned that it’s not always possible to transmit your passions to your children. Sometimes they don’t want to follow dear old Dad into whatever passionate pursuits he’s chosen for his own life. The fact that, sometimes, your kids “get” what even a part of you is really about is amazing, and, in the case of my father, I was lucky enough to be struck by the same lightning that hit him when it came to the graphic image….drawn or painted, realized in solid space in sculpture, or frozen on film. Photographs to him were another way of teaching himself to select, to edit, to choose something magical to depict or interpret, and he let me be the sorcerer’s apprentice.
Early into the Christmases of my adolescence, the power of our family albums was left in the dust as our memories began to shine and glow in our living room with the arrival of Dad’s new Bell & Howell 500 slide projector. It was Cinemascope, Cinerama, and the video wall from The Jetsons all in one, and I was mesmerized. The arrival of every yellow, flat box of new Kodak slides, all the way from the regional processing plant in Findley, Ohio, was like the reveal of a stage magician. I had caught the fever. I wanted to make pictures, too.
I wanted to make pictures like his.
The best statement I can make, all these years later, about the wonder of projected images was expressed several years ago on the Mad Men TV series, when adman Don Draper has the chance to make a fictional pitch to Eastman Kodak on how to market and name its new series of home slide projectors. And, even though our home projector used a “cube” tray instead of the wheel on Kodak’s “Carousel”, the magic was the same. Draper’s pitch began with the very essence of family memory:
“In Greek, ‘nostalgia’ literally means ‘the pain from an old wound’.
It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone.
This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backward and forwards, and it takes us to a place where we ache to go again.
It’s not called ‘The Wheel’. It’s called ‘The Carousel’ It lets us travel the way a child travels…around and around and back home again.
A place where we know we are loved. “
On this Father’s Day, as on every other, my heart is filled with memories and gratitude for the love that created them, but also a special thanks for a father who taught me the adventure, the patience, the joy of making an image. Armed with his trusty Kodak Pony 828, he taught me how to celebrate the triumphs and live with the failures, and, most importantly, to always go back to the well for another try. As both a photographer and graphic artist, he showed me that the concept is all, that it’s worth fighting for, worth worrying about, worth loving as your own special treasure.
Thanks, Dad. I love you.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter at MPnormaleye.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE GREATEST ENEMY OF THE AMATEUR PHOTOGRAPHER IS TIME. Not the time spent perfecting our “eye”, nor the years invested in learning how to realize what we visualize. Sadly, the most tyrannical toll that time takes on us is in the meager number of moments in which we have to create most of our shots. Time…enough of it to work, to feel, and to act, is the only unbridgeable gap between ourselves and most of the pros.
I say “most” because some of the best photographers live absolutely in the moment, as in the case of imbedded journalists or sports shooters. No, what I’m talking about is the appointment that pros get to set for sessions, shoots that require set-up, tests, the issuance of permits, the re-routing of traffic. It’s not hard to see that a shooter for National Geo is at greater leisure planning his shot of a majestic waterfall than you are when your tour group is taking the tram from one Breathlessly Beautiful Natural Wonder to the next, all in time to rendezvous back at the terminal for a box lunch and precisely fifteen minutes in the gift shop. It’s not remarkable that millions of images are taken in Yellowstone each year. What’s amazing is that any of them work out.
Fact is, amateurs often can’t get the luxurious arrangements for creativity that are a given for the pros. And yet, since we don’t want our stuff to look like it was shot out the window at 55mph, we have to strive to combine the brief windows of our snapshot moments with the trained eye of a session mindset.
This is why it’s so important to always be shooting. Everyday. Good subject or bad. Great weather or lousy. Always. Because only the repetitive exercise of framing up and clicking off thousands of shots burns ways of seeing, ways of evaluating, into your brain, letting you make ever more complex calculations in increasingly shorter time. Shooting all the time speeds the arrival of the day when you can, in most cases, set and shoot and know that most of it will look intentional, done with some purpose in mind.
Repetition really is the best teacher, and the more direct control you take over your shooting, the more the universal laws emerge. At this focal length, certain things always happen. Under these lighting conditions, some things are always true. You’ll have your own truths, but, over time, they will be self-evident, because you will have faced these situations so many times that the essence of what you need for a shot will start to be as obvious as a glowing coal.
Time, or the lack of it, can rob us of the smart spontaneity we need in snapshot settings. However, the time we have invested learning how to shoot can give us a session mindset, and that affords us more control.
Are my snapshots better than anyone else’s? I doubt it. But over time, they are definitely better than my snapshots used to be.
Hey, I’ll take it.
follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye
- Snapshot (photography) (itscitrarizqinow.wordpress.com)