By MICHAEL PERKINS
STREET PHOTOGRAPHY IS, AT BEST, a frustratingly imprecise method of, well, eavesdropping. In such unplanned documentary images, the photographer is cast as a kind of sneak-thief, bent upon prying into the unguarded moments of an unsuspecting quarry. But unlike the practice of listening at the keyhole, of course, unposed pix provide no sound, no dialogue to accompany the streetie’s stolen views, and so the resulting pictures often conceal as much as they reveal about What Is Going On Here. We see, but we don’t discern. At least, not solely on what is shown.
Of course, that is the delicious element of the process of street. We supply the missing pieces of the puzzle, assigning our own “meaning” to what we think we have seen. Line up a handful of viewers to interpret a photographed interaction between people and note the incredible variety of “answers” or “solutions” to the image. Part of the allure of photography is that we think as much about what a photo doesn’t show as what it does. In some ways, it’s like the relationship moviegoers had with silent film. Certainly the title cards provided the essential story points or pivotal bits of dialogue, but we also had our minds to conjure what those longing glances, those missing voices, those unseen details were really all about. And so, even in an art form in which we prize the miracle of preserving moments unmoored from time, we agree, along with our audiences, that these moments are incomplete, that, in fact, the finishing of them, in our eyes, is part of the wonder, part of the art.
And so perhaps the best street photographs are special not so much for what they show, but for how successfully they spark that urge within us to know more. Our speculations and guesses, are, in the absence of important information, as valid or “true” as anyone else’s take on the thing. That again demonstrates that photography is a creative process for both taker and viewer. It’s a cooperative enterprise, a divine guessing game with no final resolution: a circle.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
STREET PHOTOGRAPHERS LEARN EARLY THAT THE WORLD’S VAST ARRAY OF FACES comprises only part of the ongoing pageant of human behavior. Certainly our features afford the most obvious clues to our inner mind (or serve to artfully obscure it), but it’s only part of the story, a story we complete by constructing the work uniform of our daily costume.
Just as comic-book and sci-fi fans lovingly recreate the armor and cape details of their favorite comic-book heroes in “cosplay”, we too piece together a kind of costume in the assembly of our everyday apparel. We don’t just don shirts and trousers, hats and coats: we actually craft a total outward identity for ourselves, an outfit that we think correctly projects who we are. Some work uniforms are as plain as a nun’s habit, while others scream as loudly as a Catwoman leotard. We make dozens of decisions about dozens of details. This makes me look old. This makes me look too fat. This gives off an attitude. This is a good look for me. That’s the just the accent I needed. This will turn heads.
This will protect me from detection.
Our street garb is creative work for people who don’t especially see themselves as artists, even as they turn themselves into living, walking canvasses. And the combination of our faces, with their twin abilities to reveal or conceal, with the outer layers we’ve pieced together to advertise ourselves, is, artistically speaking, an original. The person who begins at the mirror each morning and ends in the street as a deliberate concoction is unique, in that all of the individual components involved in the assembly will not look exactly the same on any other person. Shakespeare’s maxim that “all the world’s a stage” and that all of us are “merely players” holds across the centuries. We are our own invention, clad in creations that are part armor, part stagecraft. What a harvest for the photographer, who, among other contrasts of light and shadow, is also measuring the contrast between what we hope to be and what we appear to be. Every day on the street is shopping day for a shooter. The game, the play, the masquerade is always afoot, and when we witness it all with a trained eye, we wind up enrolled in a master class on both drama and tragedy.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
GREAT CITIES ARE NOT MUSEUMS, statically basking in their greatness as if showing off a finished product. Metropolises are as organic as the flesh and blood creatures they host, identified by their own signature breathing rhythms, seasons, vital signs. They are always in the process of becoming.
No city displays that work-in-progress ethos better than New York. It is always in dress rehearsal, while meanwhile always staging an opening night. Both the wrecking ball and the ribbon-cutting scissors are always ticking and tocking back and forth, opposite extremes of the same pendulum swing. It’s a constant thump/rest/thump/rest drum beat that, like its namesake, never sleeps. And that adds a stunning opportunity for showing contrasts in any kind of street photography.
NYC declares daily winners and losers, and since both its Newsmakers and the Yesterday’s News folks live cheek by jowl, images taken on Manhattan streets are almost guaranteed to show that juxtaposition. In the above image, the glitter of Times Square, easily the brassiest sector of the city, can easily be framed up alongside the ubiquitous “pipe” scaffolding that attends a million different renovations and remodels throughout the town. The city’s ongoing motto might well be, “hey we’re working on it”, as the undying American hunger for the new conducts a daily road race against eventual obsolescence. Photography is, primarily, built upon contrast, placing an infinite number of bright surfaces against an infinite number of darker ones, in intersections of light and shadow that define sharpness and focus. It seems proper, then, for the camera’s subject matter to define things through the comparison of opposites.
Of course, you needn’t live in Gotham to see such contrasts or to arrange them for maximum commentary effect in your images. The messages are everywhere, since it’s our essential diversity which makes photographs worth taking in the first place. As long as there is a palpable difference between this thing and that thing, compelling pictures will result. Everywhere, in every town, it’s always dress rehearsal, always opening night.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I REMEMBER WHAT A MAD MIX OF SKILL AND DUMB LUCK IT TOOK ME to score any usable concert images in the glory days of film photography, which has been one reason why, for both economic and mental health reasons, I tended not to attempt them too often. I have known several people over the decades who simply kill at such work, and their abilities leave me as stunned as a caveman who has just discovered fire. Such people are masters of light, wizards of journalism, and maybe, just maybe, unofficial auxiliary members of the bands they cover. They’re that linked in.
Many years and many technological advances later, one of the barriers to my becoming a great concert shooter has vanished, in that, in the digital era, I can at least afford to try a lot of things without putting my wallet on the endangered species list. And perhaps that fact has, in turn, also safeguarded my mental health as well. ‘Cuz, since I can now shoot, and shoot, and shoot, I can flail away until I actually produce something worth the effort, improving my overall demeanor and putting me once again in harmony with cute puppies, adorable babies, and unicorns. Of course, I have expanded my play area in recent years to include more offstage/backstage images, not only because they are technically easier to control, but because they contain something that stage performances may not: that is, unguarded, candid moments, or the exact opposite energy seen during a concert.
As a case in point: many current artists are making a bigger percentage of their touring “take” from on-site music sales than in earlier eras, and so the good old autograph table experience frequently offers the occasional relaxed moment. It doesn’t have the same drama as a classic shot of a guitar god shredding his way to immortality, but it almost counts as street photography, depending on what kind of energy you’re trying to capture. I myself enjoy the greater freedom to grab more of the miracle moments in a show, but I also find it liberating to work both ends of the gig.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. ——William Shakespeare, As You Like It
And though she feels as if she’s in a play….she is, anyway…. ——Lennon & McCartney, Penny Lane
THE NATURE OF STREET PHOTOGRAPHY IS THE AWARENESS THAT WE ARE ALL PERFORMERS, that, from sunrise to sunset we are carrying out roles, parts played to move society along or smooth our own way within it. The most obvious symbols of performance….masks, costumes, a proscenium…these are all artifacts of the stage, and are but a small part of the dramas and comedies awaiting the attentive eye of the photographer, most of them outside the physical limits of the theatre.
We assume parts that convey ritual, occupations, celebration, even our rank within our communities. We divide our years into seasons and our seasons into roles, marks on the calendar that also define how we will dress ourselves, the codes of behavior we will observe, and the slogans and symbols we use to commune with all the other players. Thus, in street photography, we train our eyes to spot the beginnings, middles and endings of these “scenes”, to see performances in nearly every aspect of life. Some of us are destined to go for the laugh, while others seemed fated for tragedy. We invent insignia, uniforms, jargon, procedures for playing our parts, like the policemen seen here standing on alert at what will be the beginning of a parade. Over time, we develop, as an actor does, “bits of business”, ways of doing things, each with their own key visual signatures. But street work happens in the unranked and the unorganized as well…..indeed, there are actors and actresses everywhere we look. When we first begin to take notice, we may find it hard to see their stories; after a while, we can more easily trace where they’ve come from, where they’re headed, and what constitutes a climax or a turning point in their lives.
Some people choose to see street photography as eavesdropping, as an invasion of privacy. I reject this idea, because my personal intention is not to degrade but to cherish, to attempt pictures that celebrate the universal struggles of the human animal. The thing that makes our part-playing truly lonely is not the sensation that someone is watching, but the fear that no one is. Just as literature, poetry, painting and song all tie the travails of the individual to the traits of the general, so to, then, does the best photography. For if we are all “merely players”, may we not all long for the occasional chance to take a bow?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE NATURALLY DRAWN TO TRY TO SOLVE MYSTERIES, with many pictures providing sufficient data to reveal or imply a complete story. The still image can feel confining, though, since its space and time limits are strict and unforgiving, and so, narration-wise, we ask a lot of a single frame, and, in turn, we also ask a lot of our target audiences, expecting them to infer what isn’t stated, supply in their minds what goes beyond the things we’ve chosen to show. The tension between what a photographer tries to relate and what a viewer manages to extract is strong, so strong that it can often exceed our talents. We are always trying to lock down all aspects of the tale, and sometimes we don’t succeed.
And then there is the opposite drive, the urge to remove important information from a picture, asking even more of the viewer as we purposely hold back clues. Some photographs can almost seem to starve the eye, a strange effect indeed in a visual medium. What happened before we came to this place? Who are these people? What are they here for? What happens next? Good photographers know how to amass enough information to tell a story. Great photographers can pare away so much information that their pictures become a deliberately constructed puzzle. And as for the creative process, sometimes photographers get a subject or scene in view and don’t know, ourselves, what it really is we’re seeing. Instinct pushes us ahead to click the shutter anyway, convincing us that this incomplete story may have something more to give in future.
The picture seen here is an example of something I felt was intriguing in the moment, and yet, looking at it afterwards, I’m unsure whether it works or not. There are no clear hints of what the people in it are doing. Are they mere passersby, or engaged in some special mission? Does the light create a mood of anticipation? Of concern or dread? Does the shot’s conversion to monochrome help its overall mood, or does it just make it tougher to decode? Perhaps I just reacted to the composition or the light, and nothing more. And what could someone else would bring to the picture by looking at it? The frustrating part of these kinds of inner dialogue is that there is no final answer, because I didn’t select or set up this scene with the idea of conveying anything specific. I wasn’t working with intention. As with thousands of pictures over a shooter’s life, this is an instance in which I just reacted in the moment, and the results may or may not be of any value.
Narratives are strange things. We are often not in complete control of stories as they come forth, even though we would like to believe that we always act under some kind of plan. Sometimes pictures just happen. We are either open to that success/failure coin toss or we aren’t, but our attitude will color the kinds of pictures we’re willing to make.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S A GIVEN THAT WALKING AROUND IN NEW YORK CITY IS A VASTLY DIFFERENT SENSATION depending upon where on Manhattan Island’s sprawling, kaleidoscopic grid you first plant your feet. The legendary contrasts from one neighborhood to another, as you journey from rich to poor, brassy to peaceful, are a key part of the collective character of the whole. Photographers, however, since they are necessarily fixated on variations in illumination, may have an additionally unique experience between the cramped streets of Lower Manhattan and those in any other part of the region.
Quite simply, there is a premium on the amount of light that reaches the pavement in Lower Manhattan, the legacy of a spurt of urban growth that, in the first grand era of the skyscraper, threatened to smother the city’s avenues in darkness. Before the historic “setback laws” of 1916, buildings tended to grow not only tall but also virtually straight up, occupying the full space of the owners’ property lines all the way out to the sidewalk. As a result, it only took a few years into the twentieth century before Lower Manhattan’s streets were cloaked in shadow, with many byways too cramped to allow sunlight to make it to the pavement at all. Zoning was thus revised to require future buildings to rise only so far (the precise formula varies with height) before they would have to “set back”, or recede, to a smaller section, then be allowed to rise again by another maximum percentage before setting back yet again, with the cycle repeating up to the top. The new laws created the template for what we consider the modern skyscraper, which, for decades would feature a wide base followed by tapering sections that ended in a capital, rather like an open telescope. Think of the Empire State Building as emblematic of the breed.
Of course, for the streets in Lower Manhattan, especially the old financial district around Wall Street, the dye, in 1916, was already cast, with sunlight only making the occasional angled crawl into the lower stories, something which can create interesting patterns that shift and scatter throughout the day, tinting colors with a moodier edge and causing the occasional under-exposed image. The effect is sometimes like being inside the studio of Rembrandt, or any other artist credited with the use of so-called “Dutch lighting”. The overall sensation, to me, at least, is one of warmth and comfort. My wife, a native New Yorker, spent years working near Trinity Church, and considers the area claustrophobic, even as her hayseed Midwesterner husband gives it a thumbs-up. Of course, the entire area is also dotted with scads of ornate old-growth icons of skyscraper lore, such as the bull-nosed building that houses the legendary Delmonico’s steakhouse (seen at left), buildings that further enhance the time-traveler feel.
Photographically, there’s no reason to settle for one kind of New York, as there are literally dozens of flavors of it on offer at any one time. Me, I like to make pictures where the light creeps in on little cat feet instead of thundering in like a megawatt marquee. You pays your money and you takes your cherce, er, choice.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS THE CAMERA IS A KIND OF REPORTER, it is called upon to capture or convey every aspect of the human experience. In a strict journalistic context, this can mostly consist of emotional extremes…..that is, joy, devastation, triumph, disaster, life, death. Feelings that laugh (or scream) out loud sell newspapers and pump ratings. But photographers are also called upon to show that, for one reason or another, we humans spend a lot of time….waiting.
You can make your own list of all the things we actually wait upon: trains, planes, the next opportunity, the last piece of cake, Christmas, true love. To be human is to abide, to patiently hang until the next item on life’s menu comes along. Sometimes there is nothing visually special in all that waiting. On the other hand, sometimes we can use our cameras to depict our restlessness, our expectation. Certainly time can slow to a crawl, and, with it, the heartbeat of our existence. But occasionally, all that “nothing looks”, at least in a photograph, like something.
We learn to document and measure emptiness. Cities before they fully wake. Courtrooms that have just emptied out. The first seepage of night into the dying day. Places that should be bustling, but aren’t. Towns on the edge of the end. People who’ve been stood up, left out, or merely missed their connection. But, there’s no guarantee that when “nothing” happens, a picture with “something” results. Sometimes, nothing is just…nothing.
But then again….
The hotel lobby seen here has graced its small town for over a hundred years. And it stands to reason that, if the owners were making a promotional video of that century, the end product would feature plenty of images of the famous and infamous who crossed its threshold over the joint’s lifetime. The parties. The ends of wars. The changes from horse-drawn carriages to tin lizzies. But today, there are no greatest hits on the schedule. Today, there is only waiting. Killing time. Glancing at the clock, again. Last week’s stale gossip reheated for today’s visitors. Perhaps a weary remark by someone that “nothing ever happens around here”. The challenge, then: on this particular day, will all that nothing arrange itself into a scene, a small story about a small day, a tale worth telling? Or is the waiting all there is?
Making photographs on “nothing” days is an exercise, just like push-ups or jumping jacks. Often it merely amounts to keeping in practice. Staying limber. Just in case. Still, the pictures where nothing happens are occasionally, themselves, something else.
Anyone around here have a deck of cards?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE ALL ENTER THE WORLD FREE OF ENTANGLEMENTS, but even the simplest lives end in piles of….leftovers.
Detritus. Collections. Memorabilia.
The Romans might have had the right idea about a lot of things). Their word for “luggage” was impedimenta. Things that get in your way.
The recent death of a very old, sick man near my neighborhood has had, for some reason, a uniquely personal impact on my heart. Perhaps because his passing was so slow, so silent, more like a long fade-out than a sudden curtain. Perhaps because people in the area had known so little about him until a large storage bin was parked in front of his house to haul out the accumulated props of his lifetime. Most of the objects were emotionally sterile, like the rolls of peeled-up carpet or the shell of an old bathtub, items with no plain backstory in evidence.
And maybe that was what was oddly riveting about watching each succeeding batch of rubbish being carted out. The sadness of seeing that an entire life might, finally, amount to just so much broken garbage, so many banal, unknowable things. Things that would reveal little or nothing about the man around whom they briefly orbited. Items that could be anybody’s….or nobody’s.
So I did what I always do. I made a picture of the storage bucket. And then the bucket was gone. The noise of things being removed became the drone and drill of an empty house being remodeled for someone else to use. To fill with his own junk.
Then, two days later, the organ appeared.
A Lowry Pageant electronic organ, complete with coffeecup-ringed stool, apparently considered too good for the trash heap. Perhaps a poll was taken by the workers:
Do you want it?
Not me, I don’t play.
Nah, I got no room.
Perhaps someone actually said, well, we can’t just throw it out...
This called for another kind of picture. A picture of an instrument that, at one time, would have set you back the price of a small car. One of the first home keyboard instruments made before synthesizers that came with its own custom rhythm beats. Make you a one-man band, it would. What was on the program? Great Hits From Broadway? The Old Rugged Cross and Other Beloved Hymns? The Carpenters’ Songbook? I realized that, photographically, I was in different territory now. After all, a couch is just furniture, but a musical instrument is personal. Turns out a straightforward 50mm lens was fine for the trash bin shot, but I wanted to find some way to make the Lowrey, camped on the curb in front of the old man’s house, appear more…important than the free-to-good-home takeaway that it was. I finally decided that, while my 24mm prime would exaggerate the organ’s angles with a little more drama, my Lensbaby fisheye would bump up the distortion even more, allowing his house to also make it into the frame. One thing was certain: time was of the essence. Free things, especially free working things, go quickly in this neighborhood.
Sure enough, four hours after I made the picture, the Lowrey, as well as the last vapor of memory of the old man’s life, was gone. I’d like to think that some relative, somewhere, has a snap of him at the keyboard in better days. Some way to tie the man to the remnant. That’s what photographs do: they start the gears of speculation. What else happened? What else is true?
All teased by images, but never really delivered. Photographs are proof to some, unreliable testimony to others.
In the end, I got my picture, and, for a little while, my sadness at the old man’s leave-taking was salved.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
NO DOUBT WEARY OF QUESTIONS about the secret of his photographic technique, the late Lars Tunbjork once told an interviewer, “I try to take photos like an alien”, a statement which strikes me as the perfect description of the shooter’s viewpoint. We are steeped in our own humanity: we are swept along in its tidal swell. But being part of all life gives us a skewed perspective as commentators. Striving to renounce our membership, to become The Outsider, is an art in itself. And certain pictures simply can’t be made without it.
Observing a scene as if one were an “alien”, as if we were freshly arrived on a scene which possessed nothing familiar to us, forces us to make unbiased, instantaneous evaluations of what is picture-worthy, not from our memory or habit, but from instincts, even raw guesses. Like E.T., harvesting earth plants for the purpose of study, we are placing ourselves into the viewpoint of a Columbus or an Armstrong. If we succeed, our perspective is truly that of someone Who Has Never Been Before. These small stolen instants of what one photographer called the flash of perception free us, momentarily, from what we’ve learned or assumed over a lifetime of experience. They allow us to shoot things we don’t pause to understand or contexualize. We feel that something ought to be a picture, and so it becomes one.
Tunbjork often took shots of randomly selected people in office environments doing the daily mundane tasks of making a living. The pictures were certainly “real” in a sense, and can, in fact, convey the feeling that we are getting our first (fresh?) look at things so ordinary that they have become invisible. Just as in the case of the shot seen here, snapped as I took a shortcut through a busy restaurant, the sensation can be that we have just happened upon something previously hidden: a conversation, a short relaxed break, a backstage glimpse. We are intruding into a place where we normally are not admitted. We are stealing. Hopefully with a tale that, later, back on the mother ship, we can share with our fellow aliens.
I am a member of the blank generation. – Richard Hell
By MICHAEL PERKINS
STREET PHOTOGRAPHY HAS LARGELY BUILT ITS TRADITIONS on the truths and tales of the human face. The art of illustrating urban narratives on the fly relies chiefly on how those stories register on those faces. It’s a visual drama that no shooter can resist.
But the story of how, for good or ill, modern cities affect people….the way they process, channel, contain or empower them as moving props……that kind of story can be told without clear or readable facial features. This doesn’t mean that “humanity” doesn’t matter in these pictures: it means that some images are designed to show how it’s impacted that humanity en masse rather than one person at a time.
There is one other singular thing that happens when a photograph renders a face as a blank canvas. It means that, for the interpretive viewer, that face can now contain whatever he/she wants it to. In such pictures, both photographer and audience are in a kind of coded conversation about what the image “says”.
To illustrate this point: the above photo may or may not be about anything more dramatic than three men in the act of riding an escalator, headed for lunch/a meeting/the parking lot. However, since their features are shrouded in shadow and presented in a softer focus, I can intend a message of my own devise, and outside eyes can supply subplots that either complement or derail that narrative. That’s the kind of chat that keeps an art throbbing along. It allows everybody on either side of a photograph a chance to paint portraits based on their own eye.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE MASS PROLIFERATION OF THE CELL PHONE has fundamentally changed the dynamics of personal interaction, in a way unforeseen in the first days of Alexander Graham Bell’s original devices. In general, the first telephones were seen as an overall boon to mankind. They annihilated distance, sped up commerce, established connections between every person on the planet and every other person on the planet. If anyone in the nineteenth century had been familiar with the phrase “win-win”, the arrival of the phone might have elicited its first use.
But let’s now examine conversation itself, thinking of it as potentially photographic, an exchange which may not be overheard, but which, in terms of street photography, can be, if you will, overseen. Many wonderful images have been captured of people in the act of this kind of vigorous verbal ballet, their joy, vulnerability and engagement making for solid, natural visual drama. And the thing that has been at the base of many a conversation is that it was necessary for people to be physically adjacent to each other in order to have it. The telephone’s physical “reach” was finite. You had to be where a phone was to use one. From home. From the office. Or whenever Clark Kent freed up a booth.
With the arrival of the mobile, however, came the elimination, in millions more conversations, of the need for face-on communications….which, in turn, eliminated the “overseen” direct chat from the photographer’s daily street menu. Certainly it isn’t hard to see at least one half of a million calls ( try walking the streets without seeing one), but the narrative of a traditional conversation, captured visually by the camera, offers substantially more impact. Half a phone conversation is certainly real, but it isn’t real interesting. Technology is never really win-win, after all. In actuality, you trade off managable losses for potential major wins.
There is something palpably authentic about the connection between the women in the above image. And unlike the case of a shot of someone on their phone, the camera in this case doesn’t have to suggest or guess. It can show two people in active engagement. Trading that photographic opportunity away for mobility and convenience is one of the real consequences of the wireless revolution. And as a photographer, you may find yourself longing for a bygone, more personal kind of connectivity.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT ISN’T THE EASIEST THING, upstaging one of the world’s key postcard views. And yet, in final analysis, people should rank higher, in the photographer’s eye, than the things people build for their use. So it should come as no surprise that, to the patient eye, human-sized scene stealers abound everywhere, big setting or small.
This view of the southern side of the Brooklyn Bridge certainly needs no additional context, and yet, the nearby Pier 17 promenade, repaired and re-imagined as all-new public space near the Fulton Street market region in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy (and shown here), provides a daily flood of people-watching opportunity. Indeed, almost any other framing along the deck at the moment this shot was taken would show just how much company the ladies seen here actually had on this particular Saturday evening. The word throng definitely applied, with just about any other composition revealing hundreds of singles, couples, and families crowding the Pier’s restaurants, bars, kiosks, tour boats and viewing rails……however, we have decided, for the moment, to concentrate on these two ladies, and the bond of friendship that is more than enough story to power a photograph.
What you can’t hear, and they clearly could, is the incredible music beat being pumped throughout the pier. What you can certainly see is that you don’t have to be standing, or even using your entire body, to dance…to feel….to be one with that beat. In truth, given that the woman at left is sporting a pair of crutches, “dancing” becomes the living embodiment of the motto work what you got, with mere hand claps getting the job done. As for the lady in purple, a single, upraised hand and a bowed head testify, yes, I’m feelin‘ it. They are both sitting, but they are in no way sedentary. It’s on.
And while all this is going on, just like that, the Great Bridge has dropped to second billing. A backdrop. Atmosphere. Which is something that can happen anywhere, but especially here. For as they know all too well on Broadway, on any given night, the understudy can take stage instead of the star.
And steal the show.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF A STREET PHOTOGRAPHER IS GOING TO ASK HIS AUDIENCE TO EXTRACT A STORY FROM AN IMAGE, then he must ensure that he is putting that same story into his pictures. Just suggesting a narrative, especially in a photograph, is not the same as conveying one. In legal terms, you are asking your viewers to “assume facts not in evidence.”
Do you have to spell everything out, like an S.O.S. in a bowl of alphabet soup? No, but just pointing your camera at just anything happening “on the street” doesn’t guarantee emotional impact, either. Nor does it imbue your pix with profundity, irony, or anything else that wasn’t happening through your eyes before it went through the lens. No street shot is guaranteed “authenticity” just because you were on the street when you pressed the shutter.
Look at the image at left, which I snapped rather accidentally while taking a lot of images of a crowded food market. I did not mean for the gentleman in the wheelchair to be the main appeal of this frame, but even though he’s been cropped to now be central to the shot, there is no clear narrative that “saves” this photo, or makes it compelling on its own terms.
Let’s dissect the picture to see why it fails. What it is, in raw terms, is a man in a wheelchair, sitting alone, wearing dark clothing, his face hidden.That is all that’s absolutely proven in the picture. Now, let’s assume that I was going for something poignant, a human “moment” if you will. Such moments are the heart and soul of great street shots, but this one is missing far too much vital information. If the man is “sad”, is it because he’s in a wheelchair? Why, and who am I to say so? After all, maybe he just had some restorative surgery which, after a month in the chair, will restore him to star-athlete status. Or maybe he is in the wheelchair for life and yet enjoys a richer existence than I do.
Let’s go farther. His face is hidden, but what story can I make the viewer believe is true about that? Is he catching a cat nap while his pile scores him a slice of pizza? Is he doing special exercises? Praying? Does his hat fit badly? Is he depressed, or actually a master of meditation who’s more connected to the cosmos than I can even dream of? And then there’s the monochrome. This picture began as a color shot, but I certainly didn’t increase its impact merely by sucking out the hues. That is, there isn’t some clear message that was being muffled by color which now speaks in a clear voice in mono. Finally, the cropping makes him the prominent feature in the photo without making him the dominant one. The background of the original was distracting, to be sure, but, as with the color, taking it away didn’t add to the picture’s force. If anything, it made it weaker. The man can’t be ironic or poignant since I’ve now cut him off from everything that provides context to his role in the picture.
You get the idea of the exercise. This shot, color or mono, cropped or wide, had nothing clear to say about the human condition. It was taken on the street but it ain’t “street” in effect. Try the same ruthless analysis with your own “near-miss” shots. It’s a humbling but educational process.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS, ALMOST CERTAINLY, A STORY BEHIND THE PHOTOGRAPH BELOW. Unfortunately, I don’t know what it is. And probably never will.
Images often state or at least imply a narrative, allowing the photographer to relate a dimensional story within the confines of a flat, static frame. It’s kind of a miracle when that happens, but there are also those pictures in which, although part of a story has been captured in mid-flight, the whole of the tale will never be revealed. Sometimes it’s because I flat-out don’t possess the skill to tell it properly. Sometimes it’s because, although I set out to tell something in a coherent fashion, I mucked it up in execution. And, in the most interesting/frustrating of cases, it’s because the photo simply contains too little content or context to make a story emerge.
Yet, these are the images that, perversely, I find myself returning to, as if staring at them multiple times will somehow solve the puzzle. It usually doesn’t, but that’s okay, since these “quandary” pictures also become some of my favorites. Maybe it’s because they’re orphans. Maybe I actually like that they defy explanation. It’s like reading Ulysses. I don’t get it, But then again, nobody else does, either.
This particular question mark of a picture was snapped in Boston on a day soaked in enough rain to chase my wife and myself off a local walking tour around the Commons, trading squishy sneakers for butt lumps on a bus that spent 10% of its voyage hipping us to the local scene and 90% gridlocked in Beantown traffic, which is about average, as I understand it. There was, as a consequence, plenty of time to snap things out of the windows, even though the rain played serious hell with both focus and resolution. After a while, however,even the doomed task of trying to shoot anything usable became a kind of pastime all its own, especially after the driver was forced to retrace the same circle of traffic hell for a second or third go-round.
The scene you see here is in front of a historic graveyard right in the heart of the commons, a “who’s who” of honored dead, where, so say the locals, you can sit in a bar drinking a cold Sam Adams, and gaze out the window at (say it with me) a cold Sam Adams. What inspired the ragtag orchestra you see marching in front of the illustrious headstones, sans any insignia, uniforms, or sense of self-preservation is, and will remain, beyond me. What they were marching for, who their intended audience or cause might be….all of it is forever a befuddled “huh?”. Bonus round: what with the light being so meager amidst the downpour, I had dialed down to a pretty slow shutter speed, so even basic sharpness was DOA for this particular frame.
Somehow, however, I love this picture, even more than if it made any actual sense. Unmoored from reality, I can make up a dozen might-be scenarios that explain it, and so it actually has more entertainment value than many of my so-called “successful” photographs. Or maybe I just like sitting in a pew at the Church of Weird every once in a while. And, on particularly dreamy days, I can stare at this band of gypsies and wish I could take up a tuba and head their direction for a bit.
After all, they know where they’re going…
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE GERMAN PHOTOGRAPHER AUGUST SANDER (1876-1964) created one of the most amazing projects in the history of portraiture with his seminal book The Face of Our Time. Born into a world that defined people much more by class division and by the literal work of their hands, Sander created a document of a vanishing world in a very simple way, surrounding bricklayers, cooks, soldiers, and dozens of other professionals with the literal tools of their trades. His work influenced street photography and portraiture throughout the 20th century, acting as both document and commentary.
The manual trades that Sanders celebrated are rapidly vanishing as automation and changing tastes take away the tv repairmen, cobblers, and pillow makers of yesteryear, taking with them the physical look of their workplaces. It’s feels like I’ve happened upon an archaeological dig when I run across a place where handcrafted work takes place, and to photograph the shops where the old magic still happens. The encroachment into urban neighborhoods of chain stores and the crush of ever-higher rents are chasing out the last generations of tinkerers and makers. Storefronts and the stories that reside within them are winking out across the urban landscape.
August Sander’s challenge to present-day photographers is to bear witness to the worker’s signature, the mark he makes on the world and the echo he leaves behind when he departs. The world is always in the act of going partly instinct. The camera measures what we lose in the process. In Sander’s elegant, simple pictures of working people, there is a peaceful quality, as everyone seems fitted to their place and role in the world. As we photograph the final days of such a world, we are commenting on the uncertainty that follows it into our present age.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ANY CAMPAIGN YEAR COMES WITH ITS OWN QUOTIENT OF BAKED-IN CIRCUS FLAVOR. The way nations choose their leaders may be fair, unfair, inefficient, brilliant, or banal, but they never fail to offer up their own brand of home-grown crazy. There is no hat too undignified, no button too provocative, no face-paint too garish. Maybe camp-followers in an election are spiritual cousins of the fanboys who walk the halls of ComicCon, arrayed like Wonder Woman or Wolverine. Whatever the motivation, photographers paying any attention whatsoever in an election year can always find plenty of low-hanging fruit, anywhere voters gather.
The shot at left just had to be snapped, since it speaks to the kind of stuff that passes for entertainment on a day when the outside temperature at a Democratic rally in Arizona tops a balmy 108 and a campaign office built for several dozen volunteers attempts to host a horde of nearly 800. It makes cramming twenty clowns into a Volkswagen look like a card trick. And, apparently, on this particular day, the staff thought the best thing to facilitate the flow of foot traffic was to park a pair of life-size cutouts of JFK and President Obama right at the entrance, where people could slow down even further in search of a souvenir photograph, not by their next choice for Chief Executive, but a living president on his way out and a dead president more than half the crowd only knows through newsreel footage.
Not that anyone was going to get close enough to either Jack or Barry for a memorable snap, as the room was crammed tighter than the cab of the last elevator out of town, so, in the few seconds that I could stand in one place without being nudged inexorably toward the life-saving cartons of bottled water, I decided to pretend that the two prezzes were just as inconvenienced by the crush as the rest of us. Sadly, Jack’s head bent back a bit, revealing more glare than was truly presidential, but at least O seemed to be into the process. Hi, good to see ya….
Sometime politics is a proud procession, and sometimes it’s a clown parade. And yet, somehow, it’s always good for an occasional smile.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE CHOICE OF TIME, PLACE AND APPROACH IN THE MAKING OF A PORTRAIT is as individual as the human face itself. No two photographers have quite the same process for trying to capture the essence of personality with a camera. Moreover, having chosen a preferred path to making these most personal of images, we often are tempted to stray off of it. As with anything else in the art of creating photos, nothing, from formal studio settings to street candids, works all the time.
Just as one example, the key to portraits, for me, is to always be as fully mindful, in the moment, of the changes that a face can display within the space of a few seconds. You seem to be presented, from start to finish, with a different person altogether…..some other person that showed up, uninvited, to the shoot you’re doing for..someone else. Thus, it’s never a surprise to me when a subject views his/her image from a session, and immediately remarks, “that doesn’t even look like me”, which is, for them, quite correct. It’s as if their face showed something, just for a second, that they don’t recognize as their “official” face. And the photographer sees all these strangers blur by, like the shuffle of a deck of cards.
In photographing my wife Marian, I battle against her native resistance to having her face recorded, well, at all. It’s a rather invasive procedure for her, and, since the finest qualities of her face are revealed when she’s least self-conscious. That rules out studio settings, since all her “danger, Will Robinson” triggers will go off simultaneously the more formalized the situation becomes. I have to use that momentary mindfulness to sense when her face is ready….that is, when she is least aware of having her picture taken. That may mean that many other people are around her, since interaction is relaxing and distracting for her. In the above image, I got particularly lucky, since several factors converged in a moment that I could not have anticipated.
Listening to a history guide on the streets of Boston, Marian’s face set into a wonderful mix of serenity, focus, studiousness. Her finest qualities seem all to have coalesced in a single moment. Even better, although she is in a crowd, the arrangement of people surrounding her kept all other faces either out of focal register or partially hidden, rendering them less readable as full people. That gave the composition a center, as hers was the only complete face in view. Click and done.
Portraits are certainly about anticipation and preparation. But they also have to be about the reactivity of the photographer. And with something as mutative, and mysterious, as the human face, flexibility is a far more valuable tool than any lens or light in your kit bag.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I CAN STILL HEAR MY LITTLE LEAGUE COACH’S VOICE, cured into a coarse hum by too many years of Lucky Strikes, hitting me in the back of my skull as I stood shakily in the batter’s box. If he had told me once, he had told me a thousand times: don’t try to hit every ball that comes across the plate. You swing like a rusty gate, he would tease me, or don’t eat their garbage. The main message, and one that I only intermittently received: wait for your pitch.
On those rare occasions when I didn’t fish wildly in the air for every single thing that sailed in from the mound, I took great encouragement from his voice saying, good eye. Strangely, I had earned praise for essentially doing nothing, but, hey, I’d take it.
Coach sometimes comes to mind when I view the results of some of my hastier photographic decisions.
There is, for photogs, a very real translation of “wait for your pitch”, and it’s more important in the digital era because it’s such an easy rule to adhere to. Simply, you must keep shooting long enough to get the frame you saw in your mind. There can be no, “I’ve already taken a lot of frames”, or “they’re waiting for me to finish up” or “maybe today’s not my day for this shot.” First of all, it’s your picture. If you want it, take it. Secondly, there is no such thing as “a lot of frames”. There is only enough frames. If clicking one more, hell, ten more, will get you your shot, then do it. There is no phantom film counter warning you that you only have four more Kodachrome exposures left.
I am preaching this particular commandment all too loudly today because I am kicking myself for not living up to it recently. In the top frame, I got every element of a quaint old Amtrak ticket window that appealed to me, including the patterned skylight, the bored agent, the square arrangement of the Deco-ish counter space, and the left and right details of an old archway and a marble wall. Everything except the intrusive passersby on the left. They are sadly out-of-sync with the time-feel of the rest of the shot, and, had I not felt that I had nailed the general exposure and feel of the image, I might have waited for them to move out of frame, and gotten everything I wanted.
But I didn’t. I settled for “close enough”, and moved on to the next subject. Later, in post-production, I could certainly crop my squatters out, but at the cost of the overall composition. I now had to make do with what was left. I managed to reframe for another square shot that included nearly all the same elements. But it was “nearly”, not “all”. And “all” is what I could have had if I hadn’t tried to swing at the wrong ball. You can’t make a good shot out of a bad shot, and when an opportunity is gone, there isn’t a piece of software in the world that can make a miracle out of what’s not in your camera.
Wait for your pitch.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SHOW ME A HOLIDAY SEASON AND I’LL SHOW YOU PEOPLE WAITING FOR SOMETHING TO HAPPEN. They form lines for special orders, last-minute items, a kid’s brief audience with Santa. They hope to bump someone on a flight, beat someone out of a bargain, talk someone into a discount, refund or exchange. But mostly, they wait.
For as many festive holiday subjects that dance before the photographer’s eye, there are many more scenarios in which nothing much happens but..the waiting. And, while this seemingly endless hanging-out never offers images that define joy or wonder, they are fodder to the street shooter within us, the guy looking for stories. Stories of tired feet. Tales of people who can’t get a connecting flight ’til tomorrow at the earliest. Sagas of mislaid plans and misbegotten presents. Folklore of folks who are lost, lonely, disappointed, and down. In short, all of us, at various times.
Transit points are often among the most poignant during the season, with legions of faces that plead, what’ll I get for her? How will I get all the way down this list? How soon can I get home? Your best bet? Hang at the train stations, the port authorities, the airports, and hear the plaintive strains of I’ll Be Home For Christmas sung in the key of ‘as if’. Seek out those aches, that weariness, the many false starts and stumbling finishes of the holidays. And keep your camera ready, hungry for whatever visions dance in your head.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S FAIRLY EASY TO FIGURE OUT WHERE TO TAKE YOUR CAMERA if you are trying to visually depict a vibe of peace and quiet. Landscapes often project their serenity onto images with little translation loss, and you can extract that feeling from just about any mountain or pond. For the street photographer, however, mining the most in terms of human stories is more particularly about locations, and not all of them are created equal.
Street work provides the most fodder for storytelling images in places where dramatically concentrated interactions occur between people. One hundred years ago, it might have been the risk and ravage of Ellis Island. On any given sports Sunday, the opposing dreams that surround the local team’s home stadium might provide a rich locale. But whatever the site, social contention, or at least the possibility of it, generates a special energy that feeds the camera.
In New York City, the stretch of Fifth Avenue that faces the eastern side of the Empire State Building is one such rich petri dish, as the street-savvy natives and the greener-than-grass tourists collide in endless negotiation. Joe Visitor needs a postcard, a tee-shirt, a coffee mug, or a discounted pass to the ESB observation deck, and Joe Hometown is there to move the goods. Terms are hashed over. Information slithers in and out a dozen languages, commingling with the verbal jazz of Manhattan-speak. Deals are both struck and walked away from. And as a result, stories flow quickly past nearly every part of the street in regular tidal surges. You just pick a spot and the pictures literally come to you.
In these images, two very different tales unfold in nearly an identical part of the block. In the first, bike rickshaw drivers negotiate a tourist fare. How long, how far, how much? In the second, two regulars demonstrate that, in New York, there is always the waiting. For the light. For parking. For someone to clear away, clear out or show up. But always, the waiting. These are both little stories, but the street they occur on is a stage that is set, struck and re-set constantly as the day unfolds. A hundred one-act plays a day circle around those who want and those who can provide.
Manhattan is always a place of great comings and goings, and here, in front of the most iconic skyscraper on earth, those who haven’t seen anything do business with those who’ve seen it all. Street photography is about opportunity and location. Some days give you one or the other. Here, in the city that never sleeps, both are as plentiful as taxicabs.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FORGET BLOWN EXPOSURES, SHAKY SNAPSHOTS, AND FLASH-SATURATED BLIZZARDS. The hardest thing to avoid in the taking of a picture is winding up with a picture full of other people taking a picture. Hey, democracy in art, power to the people, give every man a voice, yada yada. But how has it become so nearly impossible to keep other photographers from leaning in, crossing through, camping out or just plain clogging up every composition you attempt?
And is this really what I’m irritated about?
Maybe it’s that we can all take so many pictures without hesitation, or, in many cases, without forethought or planning, that the exercise seems to have lost some of its allure as a deliberate act of feeling/thinking/conceiving. Or as T.S. Elliot said, it’s not sad that we die, but that we die so dreamlessly. It’s enough to make you seek out things that, as a photographer, will actually force you to slow down, consider, contemplate.
And one solution may lie in the depiction of other people who are, in fact, taking their time, creating slowly, measuring out their enjoyment in spoonfuls rather than buckets. I was recently struck by this in a visit to the beautiful Brooklyn Botanical Gardens on a slow weekday muted by overcast. There were only a few dozen people in the entire place, but a significant number of those on hand were painters and sketch artists. Suddenly I had before me wonderful examples of a process which demanded that things go slowly, that required the gradual evolution of an idea. An anti-snapshot, if you will. And that in turn slowed me down, and helped me again make that transition from taking pictures to making them.
Picturing the act of thought, the deep, layered adding and subtracting of conceptual consequence, is one of the most rewarding things in street photography. Seeing someone hatch an idea, rather than smash it open like a monkey with a cocoanut does more than lower the blood pressure. It is a refresher course in how to restore your own gradual creativity.
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.