the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Tabletop

LIP SERVICE

The Elder Speaks His Truth, 2016

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.

A Weston Pepper.

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.

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SMALL WORLD

By MICHAEL PERKINS

OVER THE NEARLY SEVENTY-YEAR HISTORY of the legendary View-Master, showing generations “seven more wonders of the world” with each fresh reel of views, the format has been used to depict everything from targeting exercises for sharpshooters in World War II to detailed cut-aways of the human body for anatomy students. And of course, VM’s two mainstays of popular appeal persist to this day: armchair tours of the globe’s greatest attractions and an endless variety of children’s titles, including scenes from tv shows, movies, and, most prominently, fairy tales.

View-Master’s original headquarters in Portland, Oregon operated mainly to print, duplicate and package the views taken by its roving band of freelance scenic photographers. However, there was one part of the plant that created special, homegrown bits of pure fancy within the factory walls: the company’s legendary “table-top” studios. Here were created wondrous dioramas of everything from Cinderella’s castle to the Emerald City, built to scale and populated by tiny princesses, heroes, animals, and storybook legends. The range of product, from the Grimm Brothers to Disney, was not, as in later years, just frozen animation cels but solid clay art figures, lovingly created by a select staff of model makers and photographed in 3-d Kodachrome images for the children’s division. Later on, corners were cut, budgets were slashed, and View-Master’s worlds of wonder became the stuff of legend, not to mention keen interest among collectors.

Dog Tired (2017)

Every once in a while, I take a crack at an imaginary scene that the wizards of Portland might have dreamed up, such as the concoction you see here. The stuffed dog and miniature bed had both been purchased to help the sole survivor of a quartet of rabbits get over her grief at being the Last Bunny Standing, but both props had been rejected out of hand. Turns out she rather liked having all the room, grub and water to herself, so she retired her black armband within twenty-four hours without a backward glance.

Walking by the two blacklisted toys each day, I started to imagine the dog as a small child, and wondered what his night-time retiring ritual might be, from the book that eased him off to Dreamland to the socks shed by the side of his bed. Ten minutes of prep and I was ready to shoot my tribute to the days when clay models transported us all from mere reality into View-Master’s exquisite realms of possibility. Days are often arranged in too straight a line. At such times, a slight detour into daydreaming is all you need to render the journey a little more worthwhile.


TINY TOWNS AND BIG DREAMS

Eclectic Light Orchestra: Shooting the Musical Instrument Museum's amazing orchestral diorama to scale.

Eclectic Light Orchestra: Shooting the Musical Instrument Museum’s amazing orchestral diorama to scale.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE ART OF MESSING ABOUT WITH THE MIND’S CONCEPT OF SIZE, making the small look large, has been part of photography since the beginning, whether it’s been crafting the starship Enterprise at 1/25 scale for primitive special effects or making Lilliputian mockups of Roman warships for a sea battle in Ben-Hur. Making miniatures a convincing stand-in for full-size has been a constant source for amazing images.

Oddly, there has also been a growing fascination, in recent years, with using new processes to make full-sized reality appear toy-like, as if Grand Central Station were just a saltine box full of HO-scale boxcars. Seems no one thinks things are as they should be.

This turnabout trend fascinates me, as people use tilt-shift and selective-focus lenses, along with other optics, to selectively blur and over-saturate real objects taken at medium or long distances to specifically create the illusion that you’re viewing a tabletop model. Entire optical product lines, such as the Lensbaby family of effects lenses, have been built around this idea, as have endless phone apps and Photoshop variants. We like the big to look small just as much as we like the teeny to look mighty. Go figure.

Lefz Lim brings it on down to Tiny Town, converting a real city scene to a mock miniature.

Lefz Lim brings it on down to Tiny Town, converting a real city scene to a mock miniature.

And who can resist playing on both sides of the street?

The image at the top is the usual fun fakery, with my tiny-is-full-size take on the marvelous diorama made for the Musical Instrument Museum (the crown jewel of Phoenix, Arizona), which reproduces a complete symphony orchestra in miniature. This amazing illusion was created using a spectacular photo system that creates a 360-degree scan of each full-sized player, maps every item of his features, costume, and instrument, then converts that scan to a 3-d printed, doll-sized version of every member of the symphony. To read about this awesome process, go here.

As for making regular reality look like Tiny Towns, we offer the image at the left, taken by photographer Jefz Lim as part of his online tutorial on the creation of the “model” effect. We are in the age of ultimate irony when we deliberately try to palm off the real as the fake. The “how” of this kind of image-making is basic focus-pocus. The “why” is a little harder to put your finger on.

Size does matter. Ah, but what size matters the most…..that’s your call.

 


WITH THESE HANDS

The Gundlach-Corona View Camera, about as opposite from "portable" or "convenient" as you get.

The Gundlach-Korona View Camera (1879-1930), about as opposite from “portable” or “convenient” as you get.

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.

Once all of life was hands-on.

Once, all of life was hands-on.

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.


BIG LITTLE WORLDS

You and Scooby and Shaggy meet us at the old dark house: one of the many great exhibits at Tucson's Mini-Time Machine Museum of Miniatures.

You and Scooby and Shaggy meet us at the old dark house: one of the many great exhibits at Tucson’s Mini-Time Machine Museum of Miniatures.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

EVER SINCE GULLIVER GOT HIMSELF HOG-TIED BY LEGIONS OF LILLIPUTIANS, we have been fascinated with the contrast between the VERY BIG and the VERY..small. The history of photography is pretty peppered with its share of dinky dioramas, miniature models and teensy-weensy mockups and the cool pictures they inspire. On the silver screen, still photography’s stepchild, the motion picture, launched the careers of thousands of miniaturists in its first half century, genius modelers who could create Tokyo on a tabletop, then have a guy in a rubber Godzilla suit reduce it to splinters.

In another vein, kidlings that were 3-D fans also got their tiny on during the decades that the makers of View-Master told fairy tales in stereo, not with animation cels, but with their own separate miniature studios at the company’s HQ in Portland, doing so-close-you-can-touch-it takes on everything from Donald Duck to the Wizard of Oz. And photographically, the idea was always the same: make this look like the real thing.

Oddly, in recent years, there’s been a bit of a double-reverse going on with miniatures with the creation of optics like the Lensbaby, a low-fi version of a tilt-shift lens that throws selective parts of the frame out of focus, allowing you, according to Lensbaby fans, to take a normal street scene and “make it look like a miniature model”. At this point we leave Photography class and walk down the hall to Irony 101, in which we learn that it’s cool to make something real look fake. Seriously.

I always feel like a sneak trying to make a fake thing look real, and now, it seems, I’m off the hook, since it’s not about the fakery but how cool we all agree we are in doing it (okay, I need to think about that one for a bit). In the meantime, consider a visit to one of the world’s most amazing collection of all things small and awesome at the Mini-Time Machine Museum of Miniatures in Tucson, Arizona. This place makes a large impression, one little object at a time. Photograph away to your heart’s content (no flash), and make the fakes look real, or fanciful, if you’re in the cool kids group. Either way, it’s big fun (that was the last one, I swear).


LOW-TECH LOW LIGHT

Passion Flower, 2015.

Passion Flower, 2015. Budget macro with magnifying diopters ahead of a 35mm lens. 1/50 sec., f/7.1, ISO 100.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

LIGHT IS THE PRINCIPAL FUEL OF PHOTOGRAPHY, but it needs refinement, just as crude oil needs to be industrially altered before it’s ready for consumer use. It isn’t just enough to record light in its natural form; it has to be corralled, directed, harnessed so that it enhances a photograph in such a way that, ironically, makes it look like you did nothing at all but press the shutter. So, right at the start, making images is a bit of a con job. Good thing is, it’s only dishonorable when you get caught.

Doing macro on the cheap with the use of screw-on magnifying diopters ahead of your regular lens is one of the situations that can create special lighting challenges. There is an incredibly shallow depth of field in these lenses, but if you compensate for it in the camera, by, say, f/8 or higher, you lose light like crazy. Slow down your shutter to compensate, and you’re on a tripod, since the slightest tremor in a hand-held shot looks like  7.8 on the Richter scale. Keep the shorter shutter speed, though, and you’re jacking ISO up, inviting excessive noise. Flood the shot with constant light, and you might alter the color relationships in a naturally lit object, effecting, well, everything that might appeal in a macro shot.

Best thing is, since you’re shooting such a small object, you don’t need all that much of a fix. In the above shot, for example, the garlic bulb was on a counter about two feet from a window which is pretty softened to start with. That gave me the illumination I needed on the top and back of the bulb, but the side facing me was in nearly complete shadow. I just needed the smallest bit of slight light to retrieve some detail and make the light seem to “wrap” around the bulb.

Cheap fix; half a sheet of blank typing paper from my printer’s feed tray, which was right next door.  Camera in right hand, paper in left hand, catching just enough window light to bounce back onto the front of the garlic. A few tries to get the light where I wanted it without any flares. The paper’s flat finish gave me even more softening of the already quiet window light, so the result looked reasonably natural.

Again, in photography, we’re shoving light around all the time, acting as if we just walked into perfect conditions by dumb luck. Yeah, it’s fakery, but, as I say, just don’t get caught.

 


THE MAIN POINT

By MICHAEL PERKINS

MAKING PICTURES, FOR ME, IS LIKE MAKING TAFFY. The only good results I get are from stretching and twisting between two extremes. Push and pull. Yank and compress. Stray and stay. Say everything or speak one single word.

This is all about composition, the editing function of what to put in or leave out. In my head, it’s a constant and perpetually churning debate over what finally resides within the frame. No, that needs something more. No, that’s way too much. Cut it. Add it. I love it, it’s complete chaos. I love it, it’s stark and lonely.

Can’t settle the matter, and maybe that’s the point. How can your eye always do the same kind of seeing? How can your heart or mind ever be satisfied with one type of poem or story? Just can’t, that’s all.

But I do have a kind of mental default setting I return to, to keep my tiny little squirrel brain from exploding.

Cat's Eye Vortex, 2014.1/50 sec., f/2.2, ISO 800, 35mm.

Cat’s Eye Vortex, 2014.1/50 sec., f/2.2, ISO 800, 35mm.

 

When I need to clean out the pipes, I tend to gravitate to the simplest compositions imaginable, a back-to-basics approach that forces me to see things with the fewest possible elements, then to begin layering little extras back in, hoping I’ll know when to stop. In the case of the above image, I was shooting inside a darkened room with only an old 1939 World’s Fair paperweight for a subject, and holding an ordinary cheap flashlight overhead with one hand as I framed and focused, handheld, with the other hand. I didn’t know what I wanted. It was a fishing expedition, plain and simple. What I soon decided, however, was that, instead of one element, I was actually working with two.

Basic flashlights have no diffusers, and so they project harsh concentric circles as a pattern. Shifting the position of the flashlight seemed to make the paperweight appear to be ringed by eddying waves, orbit trails if you will. Suddenly the mission had changed. I now had something I could use as the center of a little solar system, so, now,for a third element, I needed “satellites” for that realm. Back to the junk drawer for a few cat’s eye marbles. What, you don’t have a bag of marbles in the same drawer with your shaving razor and toothpaste? What kinda weirdo are you?

Shifting the position of the marbles to suggest eccentric orbits, and tilting the light to create the most dramatic shadow ellipses possible gave me what I was looking for….a strange, dreamlike little tabletop galaxy. Snap and done.

Sometimes going back to a place where there are no destinations and no rules help me refocus my eye. Or provides me with the delusion that I’m in charge of some kind of process.

 


SHARED JOURNEYS

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.

Rooted: 1/50 sec., f/5, ISO 200, 35mm.

Rooted: 1/50 sec., f/5, ISO 200, 35mm.

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.


PLEASE PLAY WITH YOUR FOOD

Verdant, 2013. 1/60 sec., f/5.6, ISO 500, 35mm.

Verdant, 2013. 1/60 sec., f/5.6, ISO 500, 35mm.

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.

Edward Weston, Pepper # 30.

Edward Weston, Pepper # 30 (1930).

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.


THE GRADUAL REVEAL

A cosmic disaster on a tabletop far, far away. 1/40 sec., f/5.6, ISO 400, 35mm.

A cosmic disaster on a tabletop far, far away. 1/40 sec., f/5.6, ISO 400, 35mm.

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.


STRING THEORY

Repose.

Repose. 1/250 sec., f/3.5, ISO 125, 35mm prime lens. 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

CERTAIN INANIMATE OBJECTS INTERACT WITH THE LIVING TO SUCH A LARGE DEGREE, that, to me, they retain a certain store of energy

Just horsehair and wood, but it has an elegance all its own.

Just horsehair and wood, but it has an elegance all its own.

even when standing alone. Things that act in the “co-creation” of events or art somehow radiate the echo of the persons who touched them.

Musical instruments, for my mind’s eye, fairly glow with this force, and, as such, are irresistable as still life subjects, since, literally, there is still life emanating from them.

Staging the object just outside the reach of full light, the picture sort of sculpted itself.

Staging the object just outside the reach of full light helped  the violin sort of sculpt itself. 1/800 sec., f/2.5, ISO 100, 35mm prime lens. 

A while back I learned that my wife had, for years, held onto a violin once used for the instruction of one of her children. I was eager to examine and photograph it, not because it represented any kind of technical challenge, but because there were so many choices of things to look at in its contours and details. There are many “sites” along various parts of a violin where creation surges forth, and I was eager to see what my choices would look like. Also, given the golden color of the wood, I knew that one of our house’s “super windows”, which admit midday light that is soft and diffused, would lend a warmth to the violin that flash or constant lighting could never do.

Everything in the shoot was done with an f/1.8 35mm prime lens, which is fast enough to illuminate details in mixed light and allows for selectively shallow depth of field where I felt it was useful. Therefore I could shoot in full window light, or, as in the image on the left, pull the violin partly into shadow to force attention on select details.

Although in the topmost image I indulged the regular urge to “tell a story” with a few arbitrary

The delight is in the details.

The delight is in the details.

props, I was eventually more satisfied with close-ups around the body of the violin itself, and, in one case, on the bow. Sometimes you get more by going for less.

One thing is certain: some objects can be captured in a single frame, while others kind of tumble over in your mind, inviting you to revisit, re-imagine, or more widely apprehend everything they have to give the camera. In the case of musical instruments, I find myself returning to the scene of the crime again and again.

They are singing their songs to me, and perhaps over time, I quiet my mind enough to hear them.

And perhaps learn them.


VINTAGE VESSEL

By MICHAEL PERKINS

3728088447_f33629a518ALTHOUGH 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.

I can suggest an elegant cheese to accompany this unique '95 vintage. Something in a discreet Velveeta, perhaps?

I can suggest an elegant cheese to accompany this unique ’95 vintage. Something in a discreet Velveeta, perhaps? A tone-mapped blend of 1/320 and 1/620 sec. exposures on a Nikon 35mm prime lens, both at f/2.5 and ISO of 100. 

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……


TURNING UP THE MAGIC

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.

A proud regiment of nutcrackers, made a little more enchanting by turning off the room light and relying on tiny twinklers. 1/2 sec., f/4, ISO 100, 20mm

A proud regiment of nutcrackers, made a little more enchanting by turning off the room light and relying on tiny twinklers. 1/2 sec., f/4, ISO 100, 20mm

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.

Use of low-power, local light instead of general room ambience enhances detail in tiny objects, revealing their textures. 1/2 sec., f/4, ISO 100, 20mm.

Use of low-power, local light instead of general room ambience enhances detail in tiny objects, revealing their textures. 1/2 sec., f/4, ISO 100, 20mm.

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.

Ho.


MAKE SOMETHING UP

Table-top romance gone wrong. Plastic Frank runs out on his clingy and equally plastic girlfriend. Shot on a tripod in darkness and light-painted with hand-held LED. 15 sec., 5/4.5, 30mm and, most importantly, since it’s a time exposure, stay at ISO 100. You’ll have plenty of light and keep the noise to a minimum.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THERE IS ONE PARTICULAR AREA WHERE, ALL AESTHETIC DEBATES ASIDE, DIGITAL BEATS FILM COLD. That, of course, is in the area of instantaneous feedback, the flexibility afforded to the shooter of adjusting his approach to a project “on the fly”. Simply stated, the shoot-check-adjust-shoot again workflow permitted by digital simply has to prevent more blown shoots and wasted opportunities than film. Shooting a tricky or rapidly changing subject with film can be honed to a pretty sure science, to be sure, especially given years of practice and a keenly trained eye on the part of the person behind the lens. However, a sizable gap of luck, or well-placed guesses remains, a gap narrowed by digital’s ability to speedily provide creative feedback. Release the hounds on me if this makes me a heretic, but as a lover of film, I still prefer the choices digital presents. I don’t have to hate horses to love automobiles.

The digital edge comes through to me especially in table-top shoots executed in darkness and illuminated with selectively “painted” light. I have already written on the general technique I use for these very strange projects in a post called Hello Darkness My Old Friend, so I won’t elaborate on that part again. What I will re-emphasize is that these kind of shots can only be arrived at through a lot of negative feedback, since hand-applied light sources produce drastically different results with every “pass” of the LED, or whatever your source of illumination may be. It’s also hard to find a shot that you love so much that you stop tweaking the process. The next shot just may afford you the quick flick of the wrist that will dramatically shift or redistribute shadows or re-jigger the highlighting of a surface feature.

Tends to fill up those rainy afternoons in a jiffy.

For the above image, I rescued two old dolls from the ash can for one more chance at fame. A friend who knew I was a lifelong Sinatra fan gifted me years ago with a beautifully detailed figure of Ol’ Blue Eyes in his trademark fedora and trench coat, the perfect get-up for hanging out underneath lonely, dim streetlights after all the bars have closed. The other figure is of course a Barbie, left behind when my stepdaughter headed off for college. Normally, these two characters wouldn’t exist in the same universe, and that was what struck me as fun to fool around with. I started to see Barbs as just one of a series of romantic conquests by The Voice on his way through the Universe of Total Coolness, with the inevitable bust-up happening on a dark street in the wee small hours of the morning.

For this shot, the idea was to light just enough of Frankie from above to suggest the aforementioned street lamp, accentuating the textures in his costume and the major angles of his face, without making his head glow so much as to underscore the fact that, duh, it’s made of plastic. The old Barbie had major hairdo issues, but hey, that’s why God made shallow focus. What I got wasn’t perfect, but then, it never is. The important thing with these projects is to make something up and make something come alive, to some degree.

Sadly, Barbie was probably the best thing that ever happened to the Chairman, something he’ll no doubt realize further down that long, lonesome road, looking for answers at the bottle of a shot glass. Hey, his loss.

So goodbye, babe and Amen / Here’s hoping we’ll meet now and then / It was great fun / But it was just one of those things…..