By MICHAEL PERKINS
PRIOR TO AROUND 1920, photographs of objects were generally naturalistic recordings of objects as they were popularly perceived in the actual world. Apples were shot to resemble apples, trees to emulate trees, and so forth. Techniques that had served photography in the nineteenth century, which favored the same objective rendering of things in the same way that painters did, persisted until generally after the First World War, after which both camps began to question whether reality was, indeed, the only way to portray the world. Some shooters began to veer away from any painterly softness or interpretation, declaring focal sharpness and documentary truth over the dreamy qualities of the canvas. Others, however, took another page from paint’s playbook, opting to see compositions as arrangements of light or shapes, and nothing more. Everyday objects were filtered through a new way of seeing, and the ordinary was drastically reconsidered beyond the act of mere recording. Photographers began to also be interpreters.
One of the most stunning examples of this new freedom were Edward Weston’s “pepper” images of the 1920’s, a series that re-envisioned vegetables as new somethings that were reminiscent of abstract nudes. Weston’s monochromes were, first and foremost, compositions of line, absent the context that the normal world typically afforded. Suddenly, shapes were absolute: the photograph didn’t have to be about anything: it merely was, in much the same way that modernist paintings re-framed the way people saw faces, bodies, architecture. Some were shocked, even frightened by the newfound freedom Weston and others were championing, while others felt liberated. As ever, the best photographs sparked the best arguments.
I was reminded recently what a simple revolution can be created by such a minor warping of the visual sense when I unpacked a pepper that I felt could have escaped from Weston’s own garden. The gnarly thing seemed, even before my memory had made a connection back to his work, like a ripe, red set of lips, something between the cartoon kiss of a Jessica Rabbit and the Rolling Stones’ lascivious logo. The curviness of the pepper proved too seductive for me to just start immediately carving it up for salad, so I attached a macro lens and started to take a tour around the thing. At one angle, the vegetable almost looked like a mouth in profile, but with perhaps the faintest suggestion of an overall crimson face as well. The entire exercise took about three minutes, after which the pepper dutifully kept its prior appointment with my homemade balsamic dressing. The one fun takeaway was reminding myself that, no offense to reality, but it’s fancy that makes photographs.
Just think what kind of portrait I could make from a rutabaga with attitude.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE CONCEPT OF THE STILL–LIFE is one of the most malleable in all of photography. Pore over enough image anthologies and you’ll see the term applied to every type of conglomeration of objects. Scale doesn’t matter, nor do either complexity or simplicity.
Story, however, does.
Annie Liebowitz’ massive shot of the cluttered interior of singer Pete Seeger’s workshop, jammed with tools, scraps and other glorious geegaws, forms a rich phantom portrait of the absent master. On the other end of the spectrum, the simple, classic bowl of fruit can suggest a time, a mood, and a place, all within the space of a few square inches. A still life is most eloquent when it implies existences without actually showing them. There is a life in these things. The photographer leaves behind clues as to whose.
I tend to feel the presence of people in empty rooms. I’m not saying I see apparitions of dead folks. The sensation is more like what I imagine Sherlock Holmes might experience when initially arriving upon a crime scene. To the great fictional sleuth, all rooms fairly scream out their stories: every stick of furniture, every scrap of food, every scattered book testifies in some way. Of course, photographs eventually prove that there is no such thing in nature as an “empty room”. Human activity leaves an after-image: we don’t scrub a place of evidence just because we physically leave it. Effective still-lifes recover part of that ethereal data.
It’s a great exercise in minimalism to see how little you need to show in a still life of a room and still suggest a narrative. It’s not necessary to tell the entire story. You need only pique your viewer’s curiosity as to what might have happened, or what the potential plot line of the scene could be. Photography, after all, is an interpretive art, and only a percentage of a place’s “reality” ever makes it into the frame. A still life, from Pete’s workshop to the bowl of fruit, is all about extrapolating from the seen to the unseen. If you’re lucky, someone outside yourself will see what you see.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE, AS A PHOTOGRAPHER, I NEED TO RENEW MY SENSES OF GRATITUDE AND HUMILITY, and I refresh both by leafing through a hefty tome called View Camera Technique, a 300-plus page collection of graphs, diagrams and tables on what still stands as the most technically immersive photographic instrument of all time. I use the word immersive because all of the view’s operations must be mastered through personal, direct calculation of a horde of formulae. Nothing is automatic. Results can only be wrung out of the device by the most exacting calculations. The guaranteed given of the view camera: there will be math on the final.
The aforementioned gratitude and humility come from the fact that I am free of the Pythagorean calculus that it took for earlier shooters to master their medium, and the knowledge that I will never apprehend even half of the raw science needed to summon images forth from these simply built, but technically unforgiving cameras. However, along with a hugh whew of relief comes just a slight pang of regret, since the camera has gone the way of many other tools that used to be in a direct, cause-and-effect relationship with the human hand.
As a kind of strangely timed stream-of-consciousness, my most recent review of View Camera Technique was followed, just a day later, by a visit to a local art foundry, a unique marriage of state-of-the-art kilns and caveman-simple hand tools, many of which were arranged on work benches near the visitors’ center, looking very much as if the past 500 years had not occurred. The marvel of hand tools is that, visually, they put us right back into an age when the world only yielded a working life to the direct, simple transmission of human force and will to a physical object. The use of a hammer is an unambiguous and impeccably clear transaction. You either drove the nail or you don’t. As Yoda said, there is no try.
Cameras no longer require us to wrestle directly with them to extract a photograph by real exertion, and that should give us, as shooters, an appreciation for those remaining implements which still do convey simple, A-B energy from hand to tool. Such objects remain powerful symbols for action, for creation, and for our urge to personally shape our world. And there must still be a great many pictures that we can summon forth to celebrate that relationship.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHIC HISTORIANS WILL PROBABLY CRINGE AT MY OVER-SIMPLIFICATION, but I tend to believe that still-life compositions were originally popular to shooters because they solved a technical problem. At the dawn of the imaging art, recording media, from salted paper to glass plates, were so abysmally slow that exposure times stretched, in some cases, to nearly an hour. This meant that subject matter with any kinetic quality, from evolving landscapes to a baby’s face, were rendered poorly compared to inanimate objects. Still lifes were not so much about the beauty and color of fruit and cheese on a plate as they were about practicing…learning how to harness light and deliver a desired effect.
As film and lenses both sped up, a still life could be chosen purely on its aesthetic appeal, but the emphasis was still on generating a “realistic” image…an imitation of life. The 20th century cured both photography and painting of that narrow view, and now a still life, at least to me, offers the chance to transform mundane material, to force the viewer to re-imagine it. You can do this with various processes and approaches, but the main appeal to me is the chance to toss the object out of its native context and allow it to be anything…or nothing.
In the image at left, the home-grown vegetables, seen in their most natural state, actually have become alien to our pre-packaged notions of nutrition. They don’t even look like what arrives at many “organic” markets, much less the estranged end-product from Green Giant or Freshlike. And so we are nearly able to see these vegetables as something else. Weeds? Flowers? Decay? Design? Photographing them in our own way, we are free to assign nearly any quality to them. They might, for example, be suggestive of a floral bouquet, a far cry from the edibles we think we know. Still life compositions can startle when they are less “still” and more “life”, but we have to get away from our subjects and approach them around their blind side.
As always, it’s not what we see, but how.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PART OF THIS BUSINESS OF PHOTOGRAPHY is rifling through the accumulated habits and techniques of a still young art form and trying to not regard any of it as holy law. Relatively speaking, measured against the sprawling annals of painting and sculpture, photography has been on the planet for about a minute and a half, so it’s still not even in its adolescence. Hardly the amount of tradition that designates rules as “essential” or “unbreakable”.
This comes to mind a lot whenever I put together what I call “arrangements” but which others might refer to as “still lifes”. I get into a definition problem in referring to just any combination of inanimate things as a “still life”, since I tend to associate that term with a collection of items that suggest, you, know, a life caught in a “still”……some activity that is suggested just by looking at the objects associated with that activity.
It’s pretty obvious stuff: put together a duck decoy, a hunter’s cap, and a shotgun, and you can almost smell the marshlands where the mallards run. Shove a rubber ball, a doll and a set of blocks up against each other, and it’s “a day in the life of a child”. You don’t show the thrill of a baseball game; instead you suggest it with an antique bubble gum card, a torn stadium ticket, and a weathered ball. It’s Photography 101. When all else fails, throw three pieces of fruit in a bowl and park them next to a hunk of cheese. Inspirational.
By contrast, I don’t really think of what I assemble in a shot to be suggestive of a narrative in the traditional way. In fact, I have more fun shoving things up together which fight each other a little bit in terms of “why are these objects all here?” I’d rather ask the viewer to supply his/her own idea of what it’s all about instead of doing a Norman Rockwell number that leads them to an obvious association. In fact, every time I take a “typical” still life, I feel like I am making the props, instead of the photograph, supply the needed interest. It feels like set decoration.
In the above image, just as an example, I decided, for my own weird purposes, to do an alternate take on the typical surgical instrument tray, only using kitchen implements. In taking a look at the medical tools of just a century ago, many of them appear as if they are intended to peel or core instead of heal, anyway, and, similarly, some of the gimmicks in your kitchen drawer look as if they could inflict real pain. Strange? Probably. But, hey, I’m old, my mind wanders, and I’m sick of almost everything on TV. Except for that bit with Lucy and Ethel in the candy factory. Now that’s entertainment.
But I digress. Thing is,”still life” is too restrictive a term (or discipline) for lots of arrangements that you might find fascinating. Just pile stuff up and see what happens. Now, if you’ll excuse me, this composition I’ve been working on with the baby grand piano is nearly complete.
If I can just get my hands on two quarts of motor oil and a kumquat.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
LOOK AT THE EARLIEST PHOTOGRAPHIC WORK OF NEARLY ANYONE and you will see a general attempt to frame up a scene and attempt to show, well, everything within range of the camera. It’s a time when we produce our most inclusive panoramas, our most crowded city scenes, our most enormous circus midways. Our pictures may be stories, but, at first, our stories have a bit of a problem getting to the point. We are so inclusive of raw data that every snap of life at the beach becomes a page out of Where’s Waldo? Thus, the very first real talent young photographers show is the ability to trim all that visual fat and get the maximum see for the minimum show.
Of course, when we are mere puppies, it seems counter-intuitive to say that showing less will actually make us see more. Minimalism doesn’t come easily to us, since we are afraid, at first, that we’re leaving something “important” out. Everyone comes to terms with this eventually if they shoot long enough, but we all arrive at the wisdom of it via various journeys. For me, it was my first attempts at still life compositions, which really are the most edited exercises we do. For these kinds of photos, it’s really about knowing what to leave out, or at least when to stop adding. And when a picture works, there is the nagging curiosity as to why….an inquiry which often leads to the conclusion that we used just what we needed, and then stopped.
Sometimes I get a sense of how little I need in a picture while I’m shooting. Many times, though, it comes to me in the editing or cropping process. If I snip something off of a picture and it doesn’t fall apart, I start wondering how much more I can pare away and still say what I’m trying to say. Learning, in recent years, how to compose again for a square frame has really been helpful, too, since it forces you into a pre-determined space limit. You can’t paint any wider than the canvas, if you will. You yourself might find other ways to get to the core balance your story needs. There is no true or single path.
I started the above image in a wide graveyard, then several graves and a tree, then one grave marker and a tree, then just the marker, and finally a portion of the marker. But in what I wound up with, aren’t all the elements I cut away really present for the viewer mentally anyway?
It’s often said, as a generalization, that painters start with nothing and add until they get the picture, while photographers start with everything and strip information away until they see just what they need. I really see a lot of photography that way. Tell the story with as few elements as you can and walk away. Minimum show for maximum see.
Not nearly so counter-intuitive, after all.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE CAN’T BE A SINGLE PHOTOGRAPHIC ARTIFACT ELOQUENT ENOUGH to speak to all the human experiences of a mass migration, so any attempt of mine or others to sum up the journey of the Irish in even a series of images will be doomed to, if not failure, the absence of many voices. Those who prayed and went unheard. Those who leaped only to vanish into the air. Those who had their souls and stomachs starved to make freedom more than an abstraction. Those who kept faith and those who lost their way.
America continues, on this St. Patrick’s Day, to struggle with the issue of who is welcome and who is “the other”, so the trek of the Irish from despised newcomers to an interwoven thread in the national fabric should be seen as a template. See, we should be saying to the newcomers, it can be done. You can arrive to jeers, survive through your tears, thrive in your cheers. Wait and work for justice. Take your place in line, or better yet, insist on a place in line, a voice in the conversation. The country will come around. It always has.
For the Irish, arrival in America begins in a time of gauzy memory and oral histories, then blends into the first era of the photograph and its miraculous power to freeze time. And when all the emerald Budweiser flowing on this day has long since washed away, the Irish diaspora will still echo in the collective images of those who first crossed, those who said an impossible, final farewell to everything in the hope of everything else, and those who stepped before a camera.
In some families the histories are blurred, fragmented. In some attics and scrapbooks, the faces are missing. The recent American love affair with geneology has triggered a search for the phantoms within families, the notes absent from the song, and this has coaxed some of the images out of the shadows. So that’s what she looked like, we say. Oh, you have his eyes. We still have that hat up in the attic. I never knew. I never dreamed.
One thing that can help, in all families, whatever their journeys to this place, is to bear witness with cameras. To save the faces, to fix them in time. To research and uncover. Another is to recall what it felt like to be “the other”, and to extend a hand to those who presently bear that painful label.
So, today, my thanks to the O’Neills, Doodys, McCourts, Sweeneys and others who got me here. Due to the ravages of time, I may not have the luxury of holding your faces in my hand.
But nothing can erase your voices from my heart.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I’VE PROBABLY SCRIBBLED MORE WORDS, IN THESE PAGES, ABOUT OVERCROWDED SHOTS than about any other single photographic topic, so if I sound like I’m testifyin’ in the Church-Of-I-Have-Seen-The-Light, bear with me. If any single thing has been a common theme in the last five years of my photography (or a factor in my negligible growth), it’s been the quest to take pictures that tell just enough, then back off before they become cluttered with excess visual junk.
Composing a photograph, when we start out as young budding photogs, seems to be about getting everything possible into the frame. All your friends. All the mountains and trees. Oh, and that cute dog that walked by. And, hey, those clouds, aren’t they something? Then, as we grow grayer of beard and thinner of scalp, the dead opposite seems to be true. We begin looking for things to throw away in the picture. Extra visual detours and distractions that we can pare away and, not only still have a picture, but, ironically, have more of a picture, the less we include. It’s very Zen. Or Buddhist. Or Zen Buddhist. Or something. Hey, I ain’t Depak Chopra. I just get a smidge better, as I age, at not making every image into a Where’s Waldo tapestry.
Especially in an age of visual overload, it’s too easy to make photographs that make your eye wander like a nomad all over the frame, unsure of where to land, of what to fix upon. Unable to detect the central story of the shot. Professionals learn this before any of the rest of us, since they often have to submit their work to editors or other unfeeling strangers outside their family who will tell them where their photos track on the Suck-O-Meter. There’s nothing like having someone that you have to listen to crumple up about 90% of your “masterpieces” and bounce them off your nose. Humility the hard way, and then some. But, even without a cruel dictator screaming in your ear that you ought to abandon photography and take up sewer repair, you can train yourself to take the scissors to a lot of your photos, and thereby improve them.
The image up top began with the truck occupying just part of what I hoped would be a balanced composition, showing it in the context of a western desert scene. Only the truck is far more interesting a subject than anything else in the image, so I cropped until the it filled the entire frame. Even then, the grille of the truck was worthy of more attention than the complete vehicle, so I cut the image in half a second time, squaring off the final result and shoving the best part of the subject right up front.
The picture uses its space better now, and, strong subject or weak, at least there is no ambiguity on where you’re supposed to look. Sometimes that’s enough. That’s Zen, too.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHIC STILL-LIFES ARE THE POOR MAN’S PRACTICE LAB. All the necessary elements for self-taught imaging are plentiful, nearby, and generally cheap. As has been demonstrated perpetually across the history of photography, the subjects themselves are only of secondary importance. What’s being practiced are the twin arts of exposure and composition, so it doesn’t matter a pig whistle whether you’re assembling a basket of oranges or throwing together a pile of old broken Barbie dolls. It’s not about depicting a thing so much as it is about finding new ways to see a thing.
That’s why an entire class of shooters can cluster around the same randomly chosen subject and produce vastly different viewing experiences. And why one of the most commonly “seen” things in our world, for example, food, can become so intriguingly alien when subjected to the photographer’s eye.
Shooting food for still-life purposes provides remarkably different results from the professional shots taken to illustrate articles and cookbooks. “Recipe” shots are really a way of documenting what your cooking result should resemble. But other still-life shots with food quickly become a quest to show something as no one else has ever shown it. It’s not a record of a cabbage; it’s a record of what you thought about a cabbage on a given day.
Many books over the years have re-printed Edward Weston’s famous black-and-white shots of peppers, in which some people “saw” things ranging from mountain terrain to abstract nudes. These remarkable shots are famous not for what they show, but for what they make it possible to see. Food’s various signature textures, under the photographer’s hand, suggest an infinite number of mental associations, once you visually unchain the source materials from the most common perception of their features.
As the head chef around my house, I often pick certain cooking days where I will factor in extra time, beyond what it takes to actually prepare whatever meal I’m planning. That additional time is reserved so I can throw food elements that interest me into patterns…..on plates, towels, counters, whatever, in an effort to answer the eternal photog question, is this anything? If it is, I snap it. If it’s not, I eat it (destroying the evidence, as it were).
Either way, I get what I call “seeing practice”, and, someday, when a rutabaga starts to look like a ballerina, I might be ready. Or maybe I should just lie down until the feeling passes.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.
- Is Food Art: Notes from a Food Photographer (okramagazine.org)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
A DECADE-AND-A-HALF INTO THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY, we are still struggling to visually comprehend the marvels of the twentieth. As consumers, we race from innovation to innovation so amazingly fast that we scarcely apprehend the general use of the things we create, much less the underlying aesthetic of their physical forms. We are awash in the ingenuity of vanishing things, but usually don’t think about them beyond what we expect them to supply to our lives. We “see” what things do rather than seeing their essential design.
As photographers, we need not only engage the world as recorders of “reality” but as deliberate re-visualizers of the familiar. By selecting, magnifying, lighting and composing the ordinary with a fresh eye, we literally re-discover it. Second sight gives second life, especially to objects that have outlasted their original purpose. No longer needed on an everyday basis, they can be enjoyed as pure design.
And that’s exciting for anyone creating an image.
The above shot is ridiculously simple in concept. Who can’t recognize the subject, even though it has fallen out of daily use? But change the context, and it’s a discovery. Its inner snarl of silvery filaments, designed to scatter and diffuse light during a photoflash, can also refract light, break it up into component colors, imparting blue, gold, or red glows to the surrounding bulb structure. Doubling its size through use of “the poor man’s macro”, simple screw-on magnifying diopters ahead of a 35mm lens, allows its delicate inner detail to be seen in a way that its “everyday” use never did. Shooting near a window, backed by a non-reflective texture, allows simple sculpting of the indirect light: move a quarter of an inch this way or that, and you’ve dramatically altered the impact.
The object itself, due to the race of time, is now “useless”, but, for this little tabletop scene, it’s a thing made beautiful, apart from its original purpose. It has become something you can make an image from.
Talk about a “lightbulb moment”….
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.
- “A Sight Into My Photographic Mind” (Perspective) (mrphotosmash.wordpress.com)
by MICHAEL PERKINS
CREATING FANTASY IMAGES ON A TABLETOP IS A LITTLE LIKE WATCHING YOUR GRANDMA IN THE KITCHEN, if your grandma (like mine) was the “I-don’t need-no-recipe”,a dash here, a pinch there kind of cook. Sometimes I think she just kept chucking ingredients into the pot until it was either the right color or the correct thickness. All I know is, when she was done, it “ate pretty good”.
I use the same approach when I am building compositions from scratch. You’re not sure what the proportions are, but you kind of know when you’re done.
One of the photo sharing sites that I recommend most enthusiastically is called UTATA, a site which promotes itself as “tribal photography” since it require a certain level of communal kick-in from all its members, posing workshop assignments and themes that take you beyond merely posting your faves. Operating in tandem with its self-named Flickr group, UTATA is about taking chances and forcing yourself, often on a deadline, to see in new ways. If it sounds like homework, it’s not, and even if you have no time to work the various challenges, you’ll still reap a vast wealth of knowledge just riffing through other people’s work. Give it a look at http://www.utata.org.
One of the site’s recent so-called “weekend projects” was to photograph anything that in any way depicted broken glass. No special terms beyond that. Cheap glass, wine glass, churchy stained glass, pick your texture, pick your context. I decided to so something with a shattered light bulb, but with a few twists. Instead of just breaking the bulb and shooting a frame, I opted to place the bulb in a food storage bag, then hammer it until it burst. Due to the sudden release of pressure when light bulbs are breached, they don’t just crack, they sort of explode, and, given the chemical treatment of the glass, there is a lot of pure white dust that accompanies the very fine glass particles. Breaking the bulb inside the bag allowed me to retain all that sediment, then make it more visible by pouring the bits out onto a black, non-reflective surface…in this case, a granite tile that I use to model product shots on.
I already liked the look of all the atomized white dust across that dull blackness, rather like a “star field”, or a cluster of debris, scattered across a vast void in space. The effect was taking shape, but the “garbage cook” inside my head was still looking for one more ingredient. The great thing about building a fantasy visual is that it doesn’t have to make “sense”….it just needs visual impact sufficient to register with the gut. If the micro-fine bits of the bulb represented some kind of space catastrophe, where was the cause? Inner stresses, like volcanoes, rupturing the Mother Bulb asunder like the planet Krypton? No, wait, what if something collided with it, some asteroid-like something that spelled doom for Planet G.E.? A quick trip out to the back yard gave me my cosmic cataclysm….I mean chunk of quartz, and the rest was just arrangement and experiment.
What does it all mean? Heck, what does beef stew mean? Making a picture can be like gradually adding random veggies and spices until something tells you it’s “soup”. And with tabletop fantasies, you get to play God with all the little worlds you’ve created.
Hey, over a lifetime, plenty of other people will take turns blowing up your work.
Why not you?
follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE LIVE IN AN AGE IN WHICH MOST OF OUR LIVES ARE EXHAUSTIVELY OVER-DOCUMENTED. We are, compared to our recent ancestors, photographically bitmapped from cradle to grave with a constellation of snaps that practically draw an outline around us and everything we do.
Globally, we will take more photographs in two minutes today than the entire world took over the entire 19th century.
That said, it’s amazing how few photos taken of, or by, us really look deeply into our souls, or whatever it is that animates us, makes us truly alive. It’s not that there aren’t enough pictures of us being taken: it’s how inarticulate so many of them are.
But go back just a generation or two, and observe the contrast. Far fewer images of most lives. And, with their increasing rarity or loss, more and more value attached to each and every one of those images that survives. Grandfather is gone, leaving only a handful of curled, cracked, and browning snapshots to mark his passing. But how rich the impact of those remaining pictures. The thirst for more, for a greatest number of clues to who this person was!
How to increase or deepen his spirit without having him here?
Explore the things he left behind. The tools he touched. The places where he invested his spirit, his aura. The parts of the world that he deemed important.
And I say: if you love someone, and have to let them go, use your camera to sniff around the found objects of their lives. It may not conjure them up like a holograph of Obi-Wan, but it will focus your thoughts about them in away which is nearly, well, visual.
I fell in love with the worn little instrument case you see at the top of this page. It belonged to my wife’s father, a man whose life was cut short by illness, a life under-represented in photographs. He made his living with his wits and with his hands. The compass which was carried in this case was a tool of survival, something he used to make his living, to measure out his skill and art. It’s a treasure to have it around to look at, and it’s a privilege to be able to photograph its worn corners, its tattered grain, its rusted buttons. Time has allowed it to speak, louder than its owner ever can, and to act as his visual proxy.
I’ve explored this theme in past posts, because I feel so strongly about the expressive power of things as emblems of lives. Long before our every action could be captured in an endless Facebook page of banal smartphone snaps, images had to work a lot harder, and say more. I’m not saying you should spend the next six months of your life raiding your closets for Ultimate Truth. I am saying you might be walking past a chunk of that Truth every day, and that it might just be worth framing up.
And thinking about.
(let’s help each other find amazing images! Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WITHOUT GETTING TOO OVERLY OOKY-SPOOKY, I believe that photographers are witnesses to, well, ghosts. Specializing in the visualization of what might be (as near as our next frame), we are also retro-witnesses, or mediums, if you will, using found objects to call back the spirit of things that are no longer here. “If these walls could talk”, we instinctively remark as we walk into Notre Dame, Independence Hall, or Ellis Island, and yet, we think we are merely being poetic when we utter that phrase.
Objects give up their secrets slowly, and in these posts I have often gone back to my fond desire to resurrect at least the essence of the owners of those objects, re-capturing people in the things they held, kept, cherished, wore to pieces, loved to death. We use every atom of our imagination trying to inch forward toward some revelation yet-to-be….a way to will a picture into being. But we are surprised to find ourself also trying to conjure forth echoes. And yet some of the most moving portraits we can produce show no people at all. I’m sure you have found this to be true.
For reasons I don’t quite understand, chairs resonate especially for me. They’re personal. They’re social. Deals are struck in them; stories are told, babies are soothed, pauses are taken, contemplation occurs. Lives pass.
For you, it might be other things that are left behind, but still ringing with the echoes of people. Books. Clothing. Cars. They can be anything, but whatever their strange stories, you can often hear them, and that makes them far from “empty”. Cameras record everything that can be seen and lots of things that can only be sensed. They may be only machines, but in the hands of dreamers they are divining rods.
Your houses are haunted, and in a good way.
Call the spirits forth.
- Between objects and life (thehindu.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ALTHOUGH SHOOTERS FANCY THEMSELVES “INTERPRETIVE VISUAL POETS”, a big part of photography is also the dutiful marking of time, the chronicling of things that are in the process of going away. The medium of image-making itself is one long history of mutation, evolution and imminent obsolescence, so why should we shy away from recording those things in our world which are always going extinct? Think of the world as one big repeat of your eighth-grade class picture. Yeah.
I am a lifelong Coca-Cola buff. Part of this fascination comes out of a career in mass media advertising and marketing, where Coke has largely shown the rest of the world how a brand is created and sustained. This fizzy (and guilty) pleasure is probably unique among all of the products ever marketed in the industrial world, coming, as it does, with its own traditions, mythology, and iconography. From the annual seasonal Haddon Sundblom illustrations of Santa Claus pausing to refresh himself to our present-day polar bear soda fantasies, Coke has established a legacy of style and, yes, a certain visual vocabulary. We may argue “new recipe” versus “classic formula”, but we know what Coca-Cola should look like.
One of the “looks” that we expect is the sinuous curl of the so-called “contour” bottle, introduced in 1916 and maintained as a constant of style well into the 21st century. This distinctively shaped design was so quintessentially American that it was originally nicknamed the “Mae West” due to its, er, curvaceous dimensions. And when it comes to Coca-Cola, icons die hard. Years after this traditional container has ceased to be the dominant delivery system for Coke products, current commercials still show customers lifting, ta da, a glass bottle to their joyful lips. In everyday practice, of course, nearly all Coke sold in America is encased in plastic, with, by 2012, only a single bottling plant in Winona, Minnesota continuing to refill the 6.5- ounce “green glass” bottles, or “bar Cokes”. By October, rising costs and diminishing returns called a halt to it all, and the last bottles rolled off the line to a chorus of pop culture weeping and wailing.
Some small glass bottles of Coke will continue to be sold at retail going forward, but their graphics are painted on, rather than molded into the glass. Call me a purist, but, as a fan of tabletop still lifes, I thought it was high time the original hand-sized, green glass, America-won-the-war Coca-Cola bottle posed for its closeup. I decided to add a little pomp by way of props to suggest Everyman’s Drink as a fine vintage, but, hey, we all know damn well that we never, ever had a glass of wine that came close to the first burpy sting of a cold swig of The Real Thing.
It’s fun mocking up product shots. It’s even more fun when it’s an act of love.
Still, maybe all those kids singing on the side of a hill in that old TV ad were on to something.
I’d like to buy the world a Coke……
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE ONE PIECE OF “EQUIPMENT” THAT HAS SEEN ME THROUGH THE TRANSITION FROM FILM TO DIGITAL is not a hunk of techno gear. In fact, it has not directly figured in the taking of even a single picture. I was reminded of its amazing longevity a few months ago, as I was going through a 2002 shoot done in Ireland. Among my own shots was a pretty good candid of me, taken by my wife, as I crouched to line up a shot next to a road heading to the Ring of Kerry. And there “it” was with me.
In fact, it was keeping me warm and dry.
Context: I never took the plunge of the eager amateur and purchased one of those puffy, sleeveless photog vests, honeycombed with a zillion pockets, pouches and secret compartments, much as I never painted the words CAMERA NERD on my face in day-glo orange. Chalk it up to self-consciousness. I figured it was hard enough to blend in and keep people relaxed in a shooting situation without looking like a cross between a spinster butterfly hunter and a middle-school lab assistant. Call me vain.
And you’d be right.
So, a plain brown leather jacket. Gimme three good pockets and call it day. And thus it was that, for the next thirteen years or so, I have had “skin in the game”, skin that has survived exploded pens, leaked batteries, rotten weather on two sides of the Atlantic, and more scrapes, tears, and rips than I care to recall. It has also helped keep countless camera straps from inscribing a permanent groove in my left shoulder, and, here in the Land Of Incipient Arthritis, I appreciate that more than I can say.
Such service calls for a little respect, and so, in the name of the weirdest still lifes ever, I figured it was time for Old Faithful to pose for a portrait of its own. Originally I thought to lay it out straight, the way they show off famous duds at the Smithsonian. But what really caught my eye was that, texture-wise, it is almost six different jackets, from the glossy sheen of an old horse saddle to the frayed look of something that’s been making out with a cheese grater.
At the last, I simply experimented with a few crumpled waves of grain, as if the jacket had been hastily tossed aside, which, trust me, it has been, on countless occasions.
Best thing is, when I’m ready, it’s still there.
I’m not a big fan of good luck charms, but maybe some things protect against bad luck, and that’s no easy feat, either. Either way, me and what Kipling would have called my “Lazarushian leather” and I will keep signing up new missions.
At least until one of our arms fall off.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CHRISTMAS IS SO BIG THAT IT CAN AFFORD TO GO SMALL. Photographers can, of course, tackle the huge themes….cavernous rooms bursting with gifts, sprawling trees crowning massive plazas, the lengthy curve and contour of snowy lanes and rustic rinks…..there are plenty of vistas of, well, plenty. However, to get to human scale on this most superhuman of experiences, you have to shrink the frame, tighten the focus to intimate details, go to the tiny core of emotion and memory. Those things are measured in inches, in the minute wonder of things that bear the names little, miniature, precious.
And, as in every other aspect of holiday photography, light, and its successful manipulation, seals the deal.
In recent years I have turned away from big rooms and large tableaux for the small stories that emanate from close examination of corners and crannies. The special ornament. The tiny keepsake. The magic that reveals itself only after we slow down, quiet down, and zoom in. In effect, you have to get close enough to read the “Rosebud” on the sled.
Through one life path and another, I have not been “home” (that is, my parents’ home) for Christmas for many years now. This year, I broke the pattern to visit early in December, where the airfare was affordable, the overall scene was less hectic and the look of the season was visually quiet, if no less personal. It became, for me, a way to ease back into the holidays as an experience that I’d laid aside for a long time.
A measured re-entry.
I wanted to eschew big rooms and super-sized layouts to concentrate on things within things, parts of the scene. That also went for the light, which needed to be simpler, smaller, just enough. Two things in my parents’ house drew me in: several select branches of the family tree, and one small part of my mother’s amazing collection of nutcrackers. In both cases, I had tried to shoot in both daylight and general night-time room light. In both cases, I needed some elusive tool for enhancement of detail, some way to highlight texture on a very muted scale.
Call it turning up the magic.
As it turned out, both subjects were flanked by white mini-lights, the tree lit exclusively by white, the nutcrackers assembled on a bed of green with the lights woven into the greenery. The short-throw range of these lights was going to be all I would need, or want. All that was required was to set up on a tripod so that exposures of anywhere from one to three seconds would coax color bounces and delicate shadows out of the darkness, as well as keeping ISO to an absolute minimum. In the case of the nutcrackers, the varnished finish of many of the figures, in this process, would shine like porcelain. For many of the tree ornaments, the looks of wood, foil, glitter, and fabric were magnified by the close-at-hand, mild light. Controlled exposures also kept the lights from “burning in” and washing out as well, so there was really no down side to using them exclusively.
Best thing? Whole project, from start to finish, took mere minutes, with dozens of shots and editing choices yielded before anyone else in the room could miss me.
And, since I’d been away for a while, that, along with starting a new tradition of seeing, was a good thing.
- How to Take a Picture of Your Christmas Tree (purdueavenue.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I WILL DO ANYTHING TO PHOTOGRAPH BOOKSTORES. Not the generic Costco and Wal-Mart bargain slabs laden with discounted bestsellers. Not the starched and sterile faux-library air of Barnes & Noble. I’m talking musty, dusty, crammed, chaotic collections of mismatched, timeless tomes…. “many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore” as Poe labeled them. I’m looking for places run by dotty old men with their glasses high on their forehead, cultural salvage yards layered in multiple stories of seemingly unrelated offerings in random stacks and precarious piles. Something doomed by progress, and beautiful in its fragility.
I almost missed this one.
In my last post, I commented that, even when your photography is rules-based….i.e., always do this, never do that, there are times when you have to shoot on impulse alone and get what you can get. It sometimes begins when you’re presented with something you’re not, but should be, looking for. A few weeks ago, I was spending the afternoon at one of Monterey, California‘s most time-honored weekly rituals..the marvelous, multi-block farmers’ market along Alvarado Street. The sheer number of vendors dictates that some of the booths spill over onto the side streets, and that’s where I found The Book Haven. The interior of the store afforded an all-in-one view of its entire sprawling inventory, but the crush of tourists bustling in and out of its teeny front door meant that any image was going to look like the casting call for The Ten Commandments.
I had to come back, when both the store and I were alone.
With the limited amount of time I had in town, that meant that I would have to stroll by just hours ahead of my plane for home. Heading out at 8:30 in the morning, I had obviously solved the problem of “too many people in the picture”, but I had traded that hassle for a new one: the store would not be open for another three hours.
For the second time in a week (see “Look Through Any Window, Part One”) I was forced to shoot through a window, but at least there was enough light inside to illuminate nearly all of the store’s interior. To avoid a reflection, I would have to cram my lens right up against the glass. Once my autofocus stopped fidgeting, I could only obtain the framing I wanted by shooting through a narrow open place on the center of the front door, standing on tiptoe to hold the composition. I also had to keep the ISO dialed low enough to not create extra noise, but high enough so I could take a fairly fast handheld exposure and get as much detail from the dark corners as possible. Balancing act.
Let’s see what happens.
In viewing the image later, I saw that there wasn’t enough detail to suit me, either in the individual books or the darker spaces around the store, so I pulled a small cheat. Making a copy of the shot, I pulled down the contrast, boosted the exposure, and sucked out some shadow, then loaded both shots into Photomatix, fooling the HDR program into thinking they were two separate exposures. Photomatix is also a detail enhancer program, so I could add sharper textures to the books and a richer range of tones than were seen in the original through-the-window shot.
Hey, you can’t have it all, but, by at least trying, you get more than nothing.
And sometimes that’s everything.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR ANNIE LIEBOVITZ, ONE OF THE WORLD’S MOST INNOVATIVE PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHERS, people are always more than they seem on the surface, or at least the surface that’s offered up for public consumption. Her images manage to reveal new elements in the world’s most familiar faces. But how do you capture the essence of a subject that can’t sit for you because they are no longer around…literally? Her recent project and book, Pilgrimage, eloquently creates photographic remembrances of essential American figures from Lincoln to Emerson, Thoreau to Darwin, by making images of the houses and estates in which they lived, the personal objects they owned or touched, the physical echo of their having been alive. It is a daring and somewhat spiritual project, and one which has got me to thinking about compositions that are greater than the sum of their parts.
Believing as I do that houses really do retain the imprint of the people who lived in them, I was mesmerized by the images in Pilgrimage, and have never been able to see a house the same way since. We don’t all have access to the room where Virginia Woolf wrote, the box of art chalks used by Georgia O’ Keefe, or Ansel Adams’ final workshop, but we can examine the homes of those we know with fresh eyes, finding that they reveal something about their owners beyond the snaps we have of the people who inhabit them. The accumulations, the treasures, the keepings of decades of living are quiet but eloquent testimony to the way we build up our lives in houses day by day, scrap by personal scrap. In some way they may say more about us than a picture of us sitting on the couch might. At least it’s another way of seeing, and photography is about finding as many of those ways as possible.
I spent some time recently in a marvelous old brownstone that has already housed generations of owners, a structure which has a life rhythm all its own. Gazing out its windows, I imagined how many sunrises and sunsets had been framed before the eyes of its tenants. Peering out at the gardens, I was in some way one with all of them. I knew nothing about most of them, and yet I knew the house had created the same delight for all of us. Using available light only, I tried to let the building reveal itself without any extra “noise” or “help” from me. It made the house’s voice louder, clearer.
We all live in, or near, places that have the power to speak, locations where energy and people show us the sum of all the parts of a life.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MOST OF THE PICTURES WE TAKE involve shaping and selecting details from subjects that are already bathed, to some degree, in light. “Darkness” is in such images, but it resides peripherally in the nooks and crannies where the light didn’t naturally flow or was prevented from going. Dark is thus the fat that marbles the meat, the characterizing texture in a generally bright palette of colors. It is seasoning, not substance.
By contrast, shooting that begins in total darkness means entering a realm of mystery, since you start with nothing, a blank and black slate, onto which you selectively import some light, not enough to banish the dark, but light that suggests, implies, hints at definition. For the viewer, it is the difference between the bright window light of a chat at a mid-afternoon cafe and the intimacy of a shared huddle around a midnight campfire. What I call “absolute night” shots are often more personal work than just managing to snap a well-lit public night spot like an urban street or an illuminated monument after dusk. It’s teaching yourself to show the minimum, to employ just enough light to the tell the story, and no more. It is about deciding to leave out things. It is an editorial, rather than a reportorial process.
The only constants about “absolute dark” shooting are these:
You need a tripod-mounted camera. Your shutter will be open as long as it takes to create what you want, and far longer than you can hope to hold the camera steady. If you have a timer and/or a remote shutter release, break those out of the bag, too. The less you touch that camera, the better. Besides, you’ll be busy with other things.
Set the minimum ISO. If you’re quickly snapping a dark subject, you can compromise quality with a higher and thus slightly noisier ISO setting. When you have all the time you need to slowly expose your subject, however, you can keep ISO at 100 and banish most of that grain. Some cameras will develop wild or “hot” pixels once the shutter’s open for more than a minute, but for many hand-illuminated dark shots, you can get what you need in far less than that amount of time.
Use some kind of small hand-held illumination. Something about the size of a keychain-sized LED, with an extremely narrow focus of very white light. Pick them up at the dollar store and get a model that works well in your hand. This is your magic wand, with which, after beginning the exposure in complete darkness, you will be painting light onto various parts of your subject, depending on what kind of effect you want. Get a light with a handy and responsive power switch, since you may turn the light on and off many times during a single exposure.
You can use autofocus, even in manual mode, but compose and lock the focus when all the room lights are on. Set it, forget it, douse the power and get to work.
Which brings us to an important caveat. Even though you are avoiding the absolute blast-out of white that would result if you were using a conventional flash, lingering over a particular contour of your subject for more than a second or so will really burn a hot spot into its surface, perhaps blowing out an entire portion of the shot. Best way to curb this is to click on, paint, click off, re-position, click back on and repeat the sequence as needed. Another method could involve making slow but steady passes over the subject….back and forth, imagining in your mind what you want to see lit and what you want to remain dark. It’s your project and your mood, so you’ll want to shoot lots of frames and pause between each exposure to adjust what you’re doing, again based on what kind of look you’re going for.
Beyond that, there are no rules, and, over the course of a long shoot, you will probably change your mind as to what your destination is anyhow. No one is getting a grade on this, and the results aren’t going in your permanent file, so have fun with it.
Some objects lend themselves to absolute night than others. For example, I am part of the last generation that often listened to radio in the dark. You just won’t get the same eerie thrill listening to The Shadow or Inner Sanctum in a gaily lit room, so, for the above image of my mid-1930’s I.T.I. radio, I wanted a somber mood. I decided to make the tuning dial’s “spook light” my primary source of interest, with a selective wash of hand-held light on the speaker grille, since the dial was too weak (even with a longer exposure) to throw a glow onto the rest of the radio’s face. Knobs are less cool so they are darker, and the overall chassis is far less cool, so it generally resides in shadow. Result: one ooky-spooky radio. Add murder mystery and stir well.
Flickr and other online photo-sharing sites can give you a lot of examples on what subjects really come alive in the dark. The most intoxicating part of point-and-paint lighting is the sheer control you have over the process, which, with practice, is virtually absolute. Control freaks of the world rejoice.
Head for the heart of darkness. You’ll be amazed what you can see, or, better yet, what you can enable others to see.
NOTE: If you wish to see comments on this essay, click on the title at the top of the article and they should be viewable after the end of the post.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE ARE DAYS WHEN THERE IS NOTHING TO SHOOT, or so it seems. The “sexy” projects are all out of reach, the cool locales are too far away, or the familiar themes seem exhausted. Indolence makes the camera feels like it weighs thirty pounds, and, in our creative doldrums, just the thought of lifting it into service seems daunting. These dead spots in our vision can come between projects, or reflect our own short-sighted belief that all the great pictures have already been made. Why bother?
And yet, in most people’s immediate circle of life there are literally boxfuls of history …..the debris of time, the residue of the daily routines we no longer observe. In Raiders Of The Lost Ark, the villain Rene Belloq makes the observation that everything can be an archaeological find:
Look at this pocket watch. It’s worthless. Ten dollars from a vendor in the street. But I take it, I bury it in the sand for a thousand years, and it becomes priceless.
Subjects ripe for still lifes abound in our junk drawers, in the mounds of memorabilia that our loving friends or spouses dreamily wish we would give to the Goodwill. Once ordinary, they have been made into curiosities by having been taken out of the timeline. In many ways, our camera is acting as we did when we first beheld them. And getting to see something familiar in a new way is photography’s greatest gift, a creative muscle we should all be seeking to flex.
Call it “seeing practice.”
Ordinary things are no longer ordinary once they are removed from daily use. Their context is lost and we are free to judge them as we cannot when they are part of the invisible fabric of daily habit. For example, how ordinary are those old piles of 45-rpm records on which we no longer drop a needle? Several revolutions in sound later, they no longer provide the same aural buzz they once did, and yet they still offer something special in the visual sense. The bright colors and bold designs that the record labels used to grab the attention of music-crazed teenagers in the youth-heavy ’60’s are now vanished in a world that first made all “records” into bland silver-colored CDs and then abolished the physical form of the record altogether. They are little billboards for the companies that packaged up our favorite hits; there is no “art” message on most of the sleeves, as there would have been on album covers. They are pure, unsentimental marketing, but the discs they contain are now a chronicle of who we were and what we thought was important, purchases which now, at the remove of half a century, allow us to make a picture, to interpret or re-learn something we once gave no thought to at all.
Old trading cards, obsolete clothing, trinkets, souvenirs, heirlooms….our houses are brimming with things to be looked at with a different eye. There is always a picture to be made somewhere in our lives. And that means that many of the things we thought of as gone are ready to be here, again, now. Present in the moment, as our eyes always need to be.
The idea of “re-purposing” was an everyday feat for photographers 150 years before recycling hit its stride. Everything our natural and mechanical eyes see is fit for a second, or third, or an infinite number of imaginings.
Your crib is bulging with stories.
All the tales need is a teller.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU NO DOUBT HAVE YOUR OWN “RULES” as to when a humble object becomes a noble one to the camera, that strange transference of energy from ordinary to compelling that allows an image to do more than record the thing itself. A million scattered fragments of daily life have been morphed into, if not art, something more than mundane, and it happens in an altogether mysterious way somewhere between picking it and clicking it. I don’t so much have a list of rules as I do a sequence of instincts. I know when I might have stumbled across something, something that, if poked, prodded or teased out in some way, might give me pleasure on the back end. It’s a little more advanced than a crap shoot and a far cry from science.
With still life subjects, unlike portraits or documentary work. there isn’t an argument about the ethics or “purity” of manipulating the material….rearranging it, changing the emphasis, tweaking the light. In fact, still lifes are the only kinds of pictures where “working it” is the main objective. You know you’re molding the material. You want to see what other qualities or aspects you can reveal by, well, kind of playing with your food. It’s like Richard Dreyfuss shaping mashed potatoes into the Devil’s Tower.
If I have any hard and fast rule about still lifes, it may be to throw out my trash a little slower. I can recall several instances in which I was on my way the garbage can with something, only to save it from oblivion at the last minute, turn it over on a table, and then try to tell myself something new about it from this angle or that. The above image, taken a few months ago, was such a salvage job, and, for reasons only important to myself, I like what resulted. Hey, Rauschenburg glued egg cartons on canvas. This ain’t new.
My wife had packed a quick fruit and nut snack into a piece of aluminum foil, forgot to eat it, and brought it back home in her lunch sack. In cleaning out the sack, I figured she would not want to take it a second day and started to throw it out. Re-wrapped several times, the foil now had a refractive quality which, in conjunction with window light from our patio, seemed to amp up the color of the apple slice and the almonds. Better yet, by playing with the crinkle factor of the foil, I could turn it into a combination reflector pan and bounce card. Five or six shots worth of work, and suddenly the afternoon seemed worthwhile.
I know, nuts.
Fruits and nuts, to be exact. Hey, if we don’t play, how will we learn to work? Get out on the playground. Make the playground.
And inspect your trash as you roll it to the curb.
Hey, you never know.