TEXTBOOK AND NO BOOK
By MICHAEL PERKINS
A FEW YEARS AGO, in trying to express what it felt like not to have a distinctly defined photographic style, I used the title of one of my favorite Van Morrison albums, No Guru, No Method, No Teacher, a phrase which even Van The Man may have lived to regret. The idea was that I couldn’t trace my own approach to making pictures directly to any particular mentor, not that I was so bloody original that I had never fallen under anyone’s influence. The problem in identifying my teachers, gurus and methods was certainly my own; I simply found it hard to draw a straight line from the examples of various photographers to elements of my own work. Now, I find that I can enumerate many profound professors, once I realized that the best of them are often not photographers at all.
That’s where my wife Marian comes in.
I have already spoken at length in these pages of her amazing value to me as a muse and model, but her ability to inspire me as a subject is separate and distinct from her role as a real and fundamental teacher. We’re not talking technical instruction here. This is a woman who has seldom even picked up a camera unless it was in the service of candid shots of friends and loved ones, or as a recording device to freeze the good times of a trip or vacation. Nonetheless she has taught me to see in very specific ways, expanding my idea of what should even be looked at. That ability resides in her love of the natural world, a place where she is a native and I am often a mere visitor. Her passion for birdwatching, for example, has helped me shoot anything, bird or object, with greater patience and deliberation, showing me the value of waiting for your moment. In her case, that might mean standing for fifteen minutes for a glimpse of the bright flicker on the wing of a flitting bluebird, while the equivalent for me might be the discipline to wait for light which, if I wait for an extra five minutes, will be perfect for exactly ten seconds.
Just as most of my other best photographic teachers are not shooters per se, Marian teaches by not trying to; her curiosity incites my own; her humility refines my own. I happily list her among the poets, illustrators, spiritualists and secular saints, from James Thurber to Emerson to Gibran, who have shown me things that no purely technical instruction ever could. Certainly among my heroes are listed many who are, in fact, actual photographers, but, since photography occurs in the eye and the soul long before it animates the hand, there are many people I love for the pictures that reside exclusively in their souls. Marian and I, like many millions of other couples, have spent three lifetimes together over the past year, and she has helped me go from caterpillar to butterfly in the metamorphosis of my camera work. That’s a gift beyond price, and a learning experience beyond the limiting titles of teacher, guru, or method.
And I am grateful.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE BY-PRODUCTS OF PROLONGED ISOLATION is the re-training of the artist’s eye, as more and more information is gleaned from fewer and fewer sources. The lifer convict thus knows more about masonry than the non-prisoner, simply because he is forced to stare at it longer. Or, to put it another way, as a person’s physical world contracts, as it has for many in the present era, things that are repeatedly re-seen can reveal more data than those that are quickly glimpsed. Notice that I am into my fourth sentence before uttering the dread word minimalism. And yet here we are.
I almost never deliberately seek out minimal compositions, at least not as part of some aesthetic religion; that is, I don’t set set out to make pictures that are, as I call them, “nearly naked”, stripped of all decoration or ornament. However, during the various stages of the creation of an image, I often decide that simpler is better, and re-set my course accordingly. And, as the worldwide Forced Hibernation has dragged on, I have found that a certain streamlining of many of my pictures is kicking in organically. Some of it occurs because I am forced to work with the same limited subject matter again and again, since traveling to a wider numbers of locations is presently off the menu. That can mean doing more than one “pass” on some pictures, and discovering. in that process, that I can, indeed, say more with less.
Those who already possessed sage wisdom or a certain Zen zeal might remark here that I should always have been on this journey, this growing sense of how to go about de-cluttering my vision. And to that, I would answer a resounding “maybe”. The image you see here is so simple a composition that I always would have approached it without the need for passing airplanes, utility poles, the surrounding parking lot, etc. However, where, before, I might have favored more detailed tableaux, I am finding, in a newly compelling way, that increasingly simpler pictures are calling to me these days. Likewise the rendering of excess detail or texture, which you’ll see is fairly absent from this picture. Does this mean I am growing as a person? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I am making pictures in a different creative environment for the moment, albeit with no guarantees that my technique will be fundamentally altered once I’m allowed out of the house more often (this site is three miles from my home). Still.
“There are two ways to be rich” children’s author Jackie French Koller wrote in 1948. “One is by acquiring much, and the other is by desiring little”. So, while I’m looking more intently at the masonry within my cell these days anyway, I might as well find out if that richer way of seeing will follow me once I’m sprung. In the words of another sage, Chuck Berry, “C’est la vie, say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell…”
THE CHEETA IN ALL OF US
By MICHAEL PERKINS (author of the new image collection FIAT LUX, available from NormalEye Press)
IF YOU ARE IN THE RANKS OF THOSE PHOTOGRAPHERS who still shoot film on occasion, you will, in the return to your old analog ways, find yourself suddenly cured of a habit we all have acquired to varying degrees since the dawn of digital. The instantaneous feedback of the pixelated life has taught us the now-instinctual reflex of what is called chimping, or the practice of checking our screens immediately after every click, ostensibly to determine if we’re getting things right/wrong. The name of this syndrome may have come from the “ooh-ooh-ooh!” sound made by chimpanzees when they are excited…like when they nail an exposure perfectly and can’t wait to get a perfunctory agreement grunt from the next chimp over. All ape references aside, to look is human, or, as Tarzan discovered, there’s a little Cheeta in all of us (sorry).
Chimping has changed the rhythm of photography from shoot/shoot/shoot/shoot/wait….(and eventually)view to shoot/look/share/shoot/look/share(and occasionally) delete. There is no equivalent to chimping in the film world, since there is no way to instantly review one’s results. In anaog shooting, correction from frame-to-frame is a matter of calculation and informed guesswork, and the results….well, they kind of define the phrase “delayed gratification”, don’t they? Chimping is a product of the very opposite…..which is the utter obliteration of the space between desire and payoff. So is this a good thing?
Every time you sneak a peek at your screen, you are, however briefly, taking your mind out of “shooting mode”. You are also taking your eye off of whatever subject you just shot, which may still be developing or changing. It’s conceivable, then, that while you are reviewing a shot that may/may not be any good, a shot that may/may not be better is invisible to you, simply because you are not looking at it. In some instances, this may be no big deal. For instance, if you are doing a leisurely shoot of a landscape or a sleeping child, breaking the thought flow to review images in between frames may not be a problem at all. On the other hand, if you’re following a sports event or a flitting bird, you could easily miss out on what’s happening by cooing over what’s already happened.
Of course, it’s easy to make broad generalizations on the value/risk of any shooting rhythm, and, like the commercial says, ask your doctor is chimping is right for you. It’s principally interesting to consider its value, however, simply because it is such a recent part of photography, and one which has become part of everyone’s work flow largely without our being aware of its encroachment. Maybe it’s caught on for purely social reasons, like our desperate need, via social media, to post and be liked. That’s the part of chimping I most disdain; its use as an instant booster shot of validation, our bid for more immediate applause. I can’t say I’m without guilt in making use of it myself, but I love to occasionally work in an older medium in which you build confidence by making a plan, setting an intention, and focusing solely on making the picture, not drooling over how fast you might garner applause for the result. I will always fail at totally suppressing my own inner Cheeta, but I can dream, can’t I?
(2021 marks the beginning of The Normal Eye’s tenth year. Endless thanks to our longstanding friends and newest arrivals. Please share what you find useful in our latest or archived pages and alert us to what we can do better. Peace to all.)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHER LUCAS GENTRY has been mentioned in many of those handy web searches that collate the most memorable quotes about camera work, little bon mots that help spice up term papers and make bloggers (ahem) sound erudite. His single sentence, “Photography has nothing to do with the camera” is guaranteed to provoke either agreement or argument, depending on whom you share it with. I tend to camp with the “agreement” team, although I would perhaps amend his statement to assert that photography can have everything…or nothing to do with the camera. Taking a picture without some kind of gear is impossible, and every camera, good or bad, can produce some kind of picture. But, beyond that, the possibilities are wide open, and nothing is guaranteed.
We have all been assisted by a piece of equipment that helped us generate the image we had in mind, but first we had to have the vision. A camera is, first and foremost, a recording instrument, like a microphone. It does, to use a hideously overused term, capture something, but like a microphone, it can preserve either cacophony and rhapsody. Another famous photographer made this issue even more poetic by stating that a picture is made either in front of or in back of the camera. Those of you who have traveled through these pages with us over the years know that this sentiment is one of my guiding principles. As I frequently say, masterpieces have been taken with five-dollar disposables, while unspeakable horrors have been committed with Leicas. And vice versa.
We live in a progressive consumer culture, an endless cycle of buy-and-buy-again. We are trained to desire the Next Big Thing. Something shinier, sexier, newer. As a matter of fact, newness alone is often enough to part many fools with their wallets because they are led to believe that the best camera is the one they don’t yet own. If you know someone like this, scribble a deed to the Brooklyn Bridge on a cocktail napkin and get them to sign it immediately. In the meantime, let me assert that working a little longer with a slightly “outdated” camera that you understand and can bend to your will is preferable to jumping to one that is so difficult to master that it actively conspires against your success. I’m not talking about taking the logical upward step to the next level of gear that you’ve naturally evolved to; I’m talking about feverishly convincing yourself that you will be a better photographer once you’ve bought X or Y camera. Remember Mr. Gentry’s truth: it has nothing to do with the camera. Equipment is not magic. You will not win the Grand Prix because you bought a Ferrari.
Establishing the best possible bond between yourself and your machine of choice makes a difference in your work, because you are directing that work, which means knowing what the machine can deliver. If you don’t have that relationship with your camera at present, work until you get it. If you can’t master the device you currently own, you’ll be even further behind the curve with a camera you have to catch up with. Don’t expect to create art that’s alive by relying on an inanimate object to do the heavy lifting. When we refer to the “normal eye” in the official name of this blog, we’re talking about developing a way to see, to get back in touch with your vision, to “normalize” it. That means taking responsibility for your work, not delegating it to the gear. Forget everything else about photography, but remember that your camera can either be an ally….or a conspirator.
THE OBSTACLE COURSE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
BOTH IN THESE PAGES AND IN MANY OTHERS, FROM PEOPLE far wiser than I, a very basic recommendation for photographers has been to choose the simplest camera that you can for what you want to shoot, rather than purchase a high-tech toy loaded with extras that you don’t currently use. Makes sense; get as many features as you actually need to get the job done, but don’t fall for the old con that your next best picture will only come once you buy your next, better, costlier camera. This advice is not based on some rugged manliness on my part, but on the simple truth that you need personal development far more than you need state-of-the-art (or break-of-the wallet) gear.
And now consider this corollary; equipment manufacturers cannot survive if you only buy simple, efficient cameras. They can only profit by selling you everything that comes with; the cases, the filters, the extra lenses, the solar-powered cookie oven that ties into your USB port. The reality for the legendary Eastman Kodak Company was that, even if it made almost nothing on the sales of its cameras, all those cameras needed film pretty much forever. As for the camera companies that didn’t also own their own film factories, there was allure in selling their customers that one extra cool trick that their camera could not do all by itself. And thus came the brackets, the bolt-ons, the custom attachments, the gauges, and the meters. This “just one thing more” approach was a vital part of the analog camera market, and it has carried forward into the digital era. The camera, apparently the very same one for which you just shelled out major buckos, is, sadly, just not enough.
The image seen here is from the user’s manual for one of the first automatic SLRs of the late 1970’s. All of this stuff was available for sale for one model of one camera from one manufacturer. You will notice that this exhaustive listing of geegaws does not even include auxiliary lenses, which would probably be more crucial than, day, #48, the battery-driven power film winder, made for those too lazy or absent-minded to wind the film on themselves (think ’70’s!). And while there may be few customers indeed who coughed up for the entire toy catalog seen here, the very fact that it exists tells us that there is a better than average chance that, if you make an “Extender FD-2XA”, someone will convince themselves that they need one.
Here’s the take-home; the rules of composition, optics and exposure have not substantially changed in the last 100 years. What changes is the elegant little tasks and tricks designed into the camera and its attendant add-ons beyond those basics. Some you need, but most you don’t. If the camera you buy does not do 75% of what you need to do all by itself, and in a few simple steps, take it back. No one ever became a better photographer by merely buying more equipment, and many have actually made their process so complicated with extra doodads that their pictures are worse. Start basic and stay there until you develop a genuine need to take an additional step, and then take it. If you only buy what you need, photography is an art, like painting. If not, it’s just a hobby, like collecting baseball cards.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THIS ONGOING CHRONICLE, for anyone who is relatively new to it, is more about the motivations, rather than the methods, behind photography. The mechanical techniques of snapping a picture can only ensure that you will, in fact, produce an image. Everything else….the shaping, the conceptualizing, the intention of making a picture, happens outside the camera, inside yourself. What I’m leading to here is that, between you and your device, your device is far less crucial. This is why people can take good pictures with bad cameras, and why you can make a lousy image with a Leica. If I believed that photography was, like xerography, just a means of recording, then I could have saved you and me both the meanderings and mutterings of the last nine years.
Photography is a strange art because it begins with real subject matter and renders it surreal. Once an instant is yanked out of its rightful place in the orderly crawl of time, once it’s isolated and arrested in its flight forever, it becomes something else than what we first aimed at. We make a decision, in the present, to preserve something, and, in that instant, that object becomes something ago. Part of the past. Not only that, but it takes on the biases of the shooter, who decided that this light, rather than that light, should be the storytelling medium, that this composed frame should be chosen over all other possibilities. We dedicate ourselves, in a sense, to making things look “real”, while the very act of photography renders that reality null and void. The final picture of a thing is either real-plus, or real-minus, but, being filtered through both the camera and our own perceptions, it can never be merely “real” again.
We also decide what is worth photographing, as if the act of taking a picture of something could confer importance on it. Certainly, we are right at least some of the time. Some moments are, by their own nature, vital, essential to an understanding of the world. But then again, who is to say what’s meaningful and what’s banal? Perhaps the best thing you can say about a photograph is that it’s an argument, like a summary made before a jury. Well argued, the photograph is seen by one’s peers as necessary, as having added something to the overall experience….that is, the jury finds for your “truth”. Badly made, the argument that is a photograph is rebuffed or, worse, ignored. When I use the phrase the normal eye as the title for this screed it, means the process of teaching the eye to see in its own way, devoid of the interpretations or prejudices of others. To develop your most normal way of seeing. The trick of selecting little seconds of time to steal and preserve is quickly taught, in the purely mechanical sense. But as we soon learn, that’s only the first baby step in the quest for a photograph. That inner journey takes a lifetime.
(the image seen on this page is part of a new collection of Michael Perkins’ images, “Fiat Lux: Illuminations In Available Light”, available from here from NormalEye Press.)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MOST OF STILL PHOTOGRAPHY IS BASED ON EDITING CHOICES, on the selection of one key instant which stands in for an entire experience. The frozen moment when a runner breaks the tape. The isolated frame of one flap’s worth of an eagle’s descent. Single pieces of seconds that symbolize the complete flow of time. Still images are not really expected to show everything that happens in a scene, from Beginning to End, the way motion picture images are. And yet, there are always groundbreaking visionaries who can create astounding exceptions to that rule. Pep Ventosa is such an artist.
In your first view of Ventosa’s images of carousels, streetcars, or monuments, you could be forgiven for thinking you were looking at an impressionistic painting, a kind of lively Picasso-style mashup of viewpoints melded together in a single frame. But his work is completely photographic; it just comes packed with way more information than you encounter in a normal image. Because they aren’t images at all, but layers of images, sometimes hundreds of them, all taken at up to 360 degrees of difference from each other and blended artfully into composites. The actual concept is simple. Pep chooses a common part of an object or scene that he establishes as a center (like the carousel platform at left), and then rotates himself and his camera around that point to shoot multiple “takes” on a single scene, all shot at slightly different angles. Imagine yourself walking all the way around a tree and shooting frames during every part of the circuit. He then calls upon his lifelong experience in both film and digital darkrooms to give all those layers different levels of prominence, sculpting the color and the detail that will be both active and passive in the final composite. What he winds up with could be called a frozen movie, since his resulting photos are a recording of long sequences of activity, different in result from, say, a time exposure, but with the same intent.
Just as the cubists tried to create static paintings that included all the different ways of viewing an object married into a single canvas, Pep Ventosa is freeing the photographic process from having to choose one “decisive moment” of a subject to use a static format (the print) to suggest movement in time. And while he really has no equal in the way that he manages this process, he has begun to inspire others to do their own mini-Peps with still life or tabletop images, with far fewer building blocks of, say, a dozen or so exposures assembled in programs like Photoshop that are universally available.
In the image of a Coca-Cola drinking glass seen at left, I shot about 18 frames, merely rotating the glass a bit between shots and keeping the camera on a tripod triggered by a remote. I was careful not to let the central core of the glass move too far left or right, using it as the anchor for the project, allowing the embossed script on the outside of the glass, as well as the shadows created by its vertical ribs, to flow into shapes that simply could never be rendered in a single image. I’m just starting to get a feel for what kind of subject matter will work best with the process, starting small, rather than heading for the local skyscraper, where the rotating process would be reversed, with the building staying constant while I circled around it.
In either small or large cases, what Ventosa has done (and something which is damned hard to achieve in photography’s third century) is to say, in a completely original fashion “oh, you thought you knew what a picture was…..but how about this?” In the making of photos, as in any other visual art, there can be no more important question.
EXALT, IN YOUR COPY
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I ONCE ASSEMBLED A SHORT BOOK CALLED “Juxtapositions” in which I flanked images of my own with quotations by great photographers on their craft. It was an amusing if inconsequential exercise, and helped me compile a miniature library of ruminations on why we do what we do. Some shooters were as eloquent in print as their pictures were, while others preferred to remark very briefly, content to let their images speak for them. I never thought, at the time, to seek out general philosophical treatises on creativity, to see the photographer’s motives discussed in general artistic terms. That now strikes me as short-sighted. It’s like doing a master thesis on breakfast and failing to consider eggs.
So let me make amends by pasting up the following passage and suggesting that it actually describes photography more perfectly than the words of any one shooter that I can recall. It doesn’t deal in the technical aspect of making a picture, since it actually predates the popularity of the medium, but perfectly describes what the photographer is seeking to do when he/she picks up a camera. From Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay Art:
“Because the soul is progressive, it never quite repeats itself, but in every act attempts the production of a new and fairer whole. This appears in works both of the useful and the fine arts, if we employ the popular distinction of works according to their aim, either at use or beauty. Thus in our fine arts, not imitation, but creation is the aim. In landscapes, the painter should give the suggestion of a fairer creation than we know. The details, the prose of nature he should omit, and give us only the spirit and splendor. He should know that the landscape has beauty for his eye, because it expresses a thought which is to him good: and this, because the same power which sees through his eyes, is seen in that spectacle; and he will come to value the expression of nature, and not nature itself, and so exalt in his copy, the features that please him. He will give the gloom of gloom, and the sunshine of sunshine. In a portrait, he must inscribe the character, and not the features, and must esteem the man who sits to him as himself only an imperfect picture or likeness of the aspiring original within.”
In making pictures, we craft compromises between what is visible and what our mind “sees”, between the mundane details of reality and the larger cues it feeds to our spirit. This is why the word “take”, in reference to the creation of a photograph, is so inadequate. We do certainly “take” something from the physical world, but we add personal intangibles to it, “making” an image out of a mix of both recordable and emotional information. As Emerson says so brilliantly, we “omit” the “prose of nature” and try to give “only the spirit and splendor.” If we’re lucky, we are not only faithful to our own vision, but instrumental in sharing something that another soul may recognize as familiar. That’s when a photograph has truly been “made”. It seems like magic because it is magic, as we exalt, in our copy, the features that please us.
MAKING LESS BADDER PICTURES
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN REALITY, THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS “BREAKING IN” A NEW CAMERA. The device cannot think and therefore cannot be trained or “broken” to its user’s will, like some kind of wild mustang. Indeed, when it comes to a new pairing of photographer and gear, if anyone is being broken in, it’s you.
Consider: since only one participant in this relationship has an intellect, only that one can change or adapt. The camera or lens is designed to permanently perform to certain static specs. It just is. You must make your technique adjust to what the device can do, and, more importantly, what it can’t do. In fact, the whole “breaking in” process with new photographic equipment would go smoother were it to center on learning what said equipment is incapable of. I was recently reminded of this emphasis when I purchased a camera that is designed to do very specific things that my regular go-to camera cannot, but which, in turn, can’t do many of the things that I am accustomed to doing in everyday practice. Such is the so-called “bridge camera”, a hybrid between a point-and-shoot and a DSLR that features both strengths and limits of the original two categories. Again, the idea is for me to learn what I cannot expect from such a tweenie device.
In my case, I purchased the camera for its “super-zoom’ capabilities, specifically so I can enjoy my wife’s birdwatching hobby to a greater degree. And sure, the camera also comes packed with some of the same features as my default unit, but I will be creatively frustrated if I don’t learn what not to expect from the hybrid. It is succeeding at being a bridge camera, not failing as a DSLR. If anyone is going to have to evolve, it’s me. Everything to its own strength. I can’t go from zero to sixty in ten seconds in a 1968 VW Beetle no matter how badly I want to. However, it’s a helluva lot easier to park than my ’78 Eldorado. And so it goes.
The best cure for New Gear Awkwardness is to shoot, shoot, and shoot some more, especially in an era in which official documentation for cameras is increasingly scarce and experience is more important than diving into the user’s manual. You must admit to yourself that the majority of early shots with your new gear are going to stink, and just embrace whatever learning curve you’re speeding along on by getting all those cruddy images out of the way early on in the process. Getting a shot like the one seen above is certainly easier with a bridge superzoom, but these lenses also come with their own weaknesses and quirks, meaning that your ratio of ruined-to-righteous shots is waaay high at the start. The goal on many early days is to merely make, well, less badder pictures.
This process is consistent with photography in general. We adjust our creativity to the limits of the technology, rather than re-making it in our own image. It’s kind of humbling, but, as it turns out, when it comes to artistry, humble is a good place to start.
YOU AS DEFAULT
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS AN ONGOING, BUT SELDOM HOSTILE, debate among photographers over whether manual or automatic focus is superior, or in which cases one or the other performs better. This forum is not an attempt to settle that issue, any more than I’d squeeze myself in between two auto aficionados to weigh in on either manual or automatic transmissions. Suffice it to say that nearly every shooter I know has a preference, if not an outright belief, on the subject. So be it. Peace, love, dove. Make pictures, not war. Anything in the following that sounds like a recommendation is merely a description of what works, or doesn’t work, for moi.
Autofocus systems are, in fact, an attempt by technology to make it easier to check off at least one box from your “before I can take the picture” list, making cameras a smidge more intuitive so that it’s easier to concentrate more on the why of making the image and less on the how. Of course, your mileage may vary on whether you regard this as a kindly assist or an untoward interference. Photographers of a certain age predate the autofocus era, and so had no choice but to master manual until the AF option was introduced. For those who started making pictures in the last thirty years or so, however, AF pretty much came with any toy you bought, and there may be little occasion to even read up on how to approach things manually. And then there are those, like myself, who lean in one direction (manual) while toggling the other way in special cases. I cal this the “me as default” system.
There are certainly times when the sheer speed of autofocus is bloody convenient, such as so-called “run and gun” situations where conditions on an event or person are in a constant state of flux (think little league baseball, bird watching), at which times I will gratefully lean on AF to avoid missing shots. However, I am often reminded how many things, from low light to the wrong combination of elements in a composition to time exposures, will absolute leave the autofocus searching, grabbing and blunder-blind. These will vary depending on the age of your camera, manufacturer, even the design bias of a particular lens. I have spent a long time trying to nail manual focus with less and less reaction time, and, to that end, I shoot for long stretches without changing lenses so as to become more instinctual about what a given chunk of glass will do. There’s also the idea of personal agency. In manual mode, I am not delegating to the AF the decision on what should be in focus: it’s my call completely. This, again, is a very personal decision, and there is no right or wrong choice. For me, being responsible for every major decision in making an exposure is the only way for me to feel as if it’s my picture. That said, I no longer mess around with a light meter or figure out flash settings with a slide rule and a sextant, so I can easily be called out for my hypocrisy. Still.
And then there’s the occasional oddball situation, like the above image, in which you can get a little playful with what either AF or manual can or can’t do. But as I said at the start, we are not here to settle this issue as we might decide the winner in a boxing match. If your pictures come out the way you want, then it matters little if you even had a lens on the camera. Both manual and AF shooting situations have their travails. I guess what I’m finally getting to is that both approaches will serve you in certain times. Find out what those occasions are, and master them, and yourself, in the process.
180 DEGREES OF SEPARATION
By MICHAEL PERKINS
REFLECTIONS, OF ANYTHING, ON ANYTHING, ARE DECEPTIVE in the way they seem to store information in a photograph. We tend to think of them as perfect mirror images of something, a complete yin to something else’s yang. But if reflections are twins of a sort, they are seldom identical twins, as the duplicate is almost certain to be an imperfect copy of the original.
Consider the “mirror” idea. Anything reflected in one is, at the very least, reversed. And then we go further: are there any spots or streaks on the mirror? Did a strange bounce of light create a flare or a prismatic break of color that doesn’t occur in what’s reflected? The truth is that even a mirror reflection is not perfect but a reasonable replica. Next, let’s consider using another reflecting surface, from water to marble to other types of glass. Now the reflections are even more adulterated. We see them through floating junk, through dirt, through bounced reflections of other things, and so on.
As photographers, we often don’t regard a reflection as anything but a handy design element, a decorative, if flawed, supplement to the thing we primarily want to show. But on occasion, the thing we have set our sights on is compromised or less than effective, while the reflection, although more abstract, even backwards from our original intent, can become the part of the picture we re-set ourselves to showcase. It’s an element of how we see (or don’t see). We automatically make the adjustment in the viewpoint between portrait and landscape orientations, and yet overlook something as simple as inverting an image, to make its passive “bottom” an active “top”, as seen here.
In the thumbnail of my original shot of a 1920’s-era lobby (above at left), the people above the floor clutter the scene to such as extent that the lobby loses its power as an image. There are also some pronounced exposure and contrast issues.However, with the photo flipped on its head, the luxuriously patterned Art Deco floor blends its own design patterns with an ethereal rendering of the people that changes not only the frame of reference but the very intention of the picture, especially with the distracting top half of the original cropped away. It’s a mix of the imperfect reflection material (the floor) and its ability to re-interpret all of the more literal stuff from the first version. All this to say that, instead of regarding reflections as mere duplicates of worlds, we should and can regard them as separate worlds of their own, with distinctly different stories to present to our cameras.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS PHOTOGRAPHERS, WE ALL HAVE THEM, whether we parade them defiantly or sequester them in locked drawers. “They” are our Orphan Images, the photos that never quite made it to the finals. Our strange little camera creatures, the ones that fall outside every arbitrary category of success. Our guilty pleasures. Or, in most cases, concepts that Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time.
We’ve written about these underloved ones before here in The Normal Eye, these pictures that may not even be technical failures but which somehow qualify as….odd. So. Very. Odd. And still I come back to the subject because there is something addictive about even our mistakes. Maybe especially our mistakes.
Many of them frustrate us. The compositions that didn’t quite sell our idea. The light that failed. The idea we didn’t take quite far enough. Did I mention bad light?
Strangely, we harbor a special warmth toward our orphans. We may even convince ourselves that they really are “great”. Or that they’re misunderstood, which means that they somehow failed to make themselves understood. Sometimes an idea that comes close, but still comes up short, inspires a bittersweet affection in us. They are the kids that got cut from Little League at the last second. We, or the pictures, tried so very hard. To be in the presence of greatness is breathtaking, while being in the presence of almost-greatness is often heartbreaking.
After you’ve been shooting for a while, you seldom take any picture without some kind of basic intention. And that means that the resulting image can’t really stand alone anymore. It’s always linked, and contrasted, with the thing we wish we had done. If we missed by a mile, we can accept that perfection is a journey and be a bit philosophical about the whole thing. Missing by inches…well, that’s another thing entirely.
I don’t know why I like this picture. I mean, I understand completely the mix of components I was going for. And yet, I can’t defend it vigorously to anyone else. I know it’s…off. But not far enough off to land in the junk bin. Just off enough to drive me a little bit crazy.
Ella Fitzgerald once said that the only thing that’s better than singing is more singing. And I guess I feel the same about making pictures. Whatever’s wrong with your photos can, or might, be cured by your very next one. Or not. That’s the tantalizing, and maddening part of the photographic learning curve. It’s complicated further by the fact that you’re not merely trying to master your gear, but yourself. Seeing how very close you came to being the best you is tough. But most failures are not outright flops but qualified successes, and that little tweak in how we perceive our imperfect work is the only thing that also makes the whole deal worthwhile.
BOTH ENDS OF THE GIG
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.
JOE COOL VS THE TIME MACHINE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF PHOTOGRAPHER RICHARD AVEDON’S MOST PERSONAL (and most controversial) projects involved the documentation of the deterioration and death of his beloved father. In a similar vein, Annie Leibovitz chronicled her partner Susan Sontag’s brave but ultimately unsuccessful battle with cancer. Both series are riveting and heartbreaking, truly valiant attempts by artists to face the most terrifying aspect of life, namely its end. I admire both works, as I do many others that traffic in the same aims.
But I just can’t bring myself to photograph my own father (who turns ninety at this writing) in that way. It’s not that I lack the courage. Or the curiosity. I might even possess the clinical detachment it would require. But if photography has meant anything to me, it’s been about focusing on what’s most important. And the impending end of Dad’s life is of no importance, especially if compared to the quality of the life he has lived. I just can’t make despairing pictures of him. Not on purpose, anyway.
Technically, I could easily record tender, textured studies of how fragile his marvelously gifted artist’s hands have become. I could dwell endlessly on the inexorable appetite of time in robbing him of his balance, his eyesight, even, occasionally, his memory. But while any of those factors might produce pictures that were poignant, even eloquent, they would not be true to the spirit of the things that have animated and excited him over a lifetime. Ideas. Passions. Projects. A love of every manifestation of the artistic impulse, from the avalanche of books that littered every corner of our house to the lazy summer Sundays when he and I would lay on a sheet on the living room floor near the box fan, put My Fair Lady on the hi-fi, and be transported to 1910 London. Life is certainly, to a degree, about setbacks. But it’s also about being indomitable. Yes, that’s it. I’ve slung a lifetime of compliments in Dad’s direction, but indomitable is the word that finally sums him up. Hemingway once said that a man can be destroyed, but not defeated. God knows I’ve been around to see the world take a whack at accomplishing the former process. Gladly, I have never witnessed the latter. The trips down to the canvas don’t count. The journeys back up from the canvas do.
The image seen here began as an experiment with a particular art lens of mine. It’s based on selective focus, which means that you create pictures that actually conceal and much as they reveal. That means a less-than-reliable rendering of aged skin, a gauzy interpretation of the harder textures of aging. As for the sunglasses, while jaunty, they are not an attempt by the Chief to be cool but rather a very needful protection against over-loading his eyes with harsh light. And still, the overall affect, at least to me, is relaxed, comfortable. In this picture, I see no Sick Old Man. I see (or choose to see, maybe) an update on the dashing blockade runner I grew up with. The borderline shy smile, the posture of someone recalling a really good story. It’s the central nugget of his personality, which survives intact to this day, even if the machine that carries it around throws more cogs than it used to.
Photographs of such a man have to be resilient, even defiant. I grew up with too many instances of his quoting Dylan Thomas’ exhortation to “rage, rage, against the dying of the light” to snap pictures of him as weak or downhearted. And, of course, the man who loved that poem still bubbles up, even in conversations that are mostly about trouble or turmoil. Earlier this week, to change the subject from Time’s latest assaults on him and Mother, I mentioned that I had sent my sister “something you can use on your birthday.”
A pause, then:
“That’d be the motorcycle, right?”
“Yes”, I said, laughing with gratitude and relief, ” but I didn’t pop for the sidecar. I thought it would be too showy.”
Joe Cool was still on the job. And as for that Time Machine thing, you can take it and stick it.
Happy Birthday Daddy/Dad/Pop/Poppa/Daddy
TRIBUTE OR THEFT?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE WORD “APPROPRIATION” HAS BECOME A PERMANENT PART OF THE ACTIVE VOCABULARY OF VISUAL ARTS, and I am never consistently sure how I feel about it.
Like the term “found object”, things labeled as “appropriated” from other works seem to cast a shadow over photography, or over its potential for originality. Can the artist ever really produce a thing that is completely new? And if so, does it make him dishonest to re-use something that’s been any part of someone else’s work? Can you generate an image that shows, for example, a frame from a motion picture that someone else directed? How about a random glimpse of a frozen moment from a television show? Are those who admire a painting in a gallery and snap an image of it plagiarists? Additionally, the entire web-era issue of intellectual property complicates the question even further. Even if a photographer’s motives in “appropriating” are artistically pure, is he/she creating a tribute….or perpetrating a theft?
I have seldom dipped my toe into this particular swamp, mostly since I want to create work that is as personally unique as possible. I certainly love the idea of “standing on the shoulders of giants”, but I don’t like to think that it’s because I’m too weak to walk under my own power. So let’s analyze an instance in which I try to straddle both sides of the tribute/theft debate.
What you see here is a most particular exercise with a very specially selected image. The original picture, as seen within the page frame, is an illustration from The Practice Of Contemplative Photography by Andy Carr, a book designed to train the reader’s eye to see in less conventional ways, to examine the gulf between conception and perception. The authors, Andy Carr and Michael Wood, have deliberately set forth a series of exercises created to force photographers to develop alternatives method of seeing. What I glean from this is that they don’t want to hold any single photographic approach as sacred….perhaps even those they themselves put forward as artists.
The composite image seen here is an attempt to take Michael Wood’s beautiful picture, a minimalist shot which shows a single orange leaf balanced on a ledge, and imagine what kind of picture might be a visual sequel to it. I used a Lensbaby Sweet 35 optic to keep the original photo’s sharp focus on his leaf, which, as it trails down the stream of added orange potpourri pieces, transitions to softness….as if, in a dream, the leaves might be seeming to erupt out of the page. So, if you’re keeping score, the starting photograph is shown in the context of the book in which it originally appeared, with added objects that I have arranged for a new overall photo-creation of my own. Please note that in every single posting of this picture, I have given specific credit to the original artists/authors, and represented it as an appropriation, the use of elements not my own for a re-imaging that is my own. I would never seek credit for the original Wood image: it did serve, of course, as a springboard for something else. And, if at some time, I am asked by said creator to remove any and all traces of my composite from public platforms, I would acquiesce immediately.
Ever since Warhol began making silkscreens of photographs shot by other artists, which he then showed as Warhol “works”, this argument has mostly led to…..more arguments. And, as stated, I seldom find myself in this particular playpen. It’s simply too tough to be sure of all my motivations.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I CALL IT NO–FUNDAY, the painful exercise of poring over photographs that I once considered “keepers” and now must reluctantly re-classify as “obviously, I’m an idiot.” For any photographer, self-editing one’s output is just the kind of humiliation one needs to keep on shooting, if only to put greater distance between one’s self and one’s yester-duds.
To make the shame of disowning my photographic spawn even worse, I find that, more often than not, technical failure is usually not the reason I’m lunging for the delete button: it’s the weakness of the conception, a basic lifelessness or lack of impact that far outweighs any errors in exposure, lighting, even composition. In other words, my worst pictures are, by and large, bad because they are well-executed renditions of measly ideas.
In my mental filing cabinet, I refer to these images under the acronym SLIGIATT, or Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time. The image above is a perfect example. This shot, taken inside the underbelly of a WWII bomber, presented a ton of lighting challenges, but I spent so much time tweaking this aspect of it that I neglected to notice that there just isn’t a picture here. It tells no story. It explains nothing. It’s just an incomprehensible jumble of old equipment which lets the eye wander all over the frame, only to land on…..well, what exactly? But, boy howdy, it is well-lit.
SLIGIATT photos are, of course, necessary. You have to take all the wrong pictures to teach yourself how to create the good ones. And mere technical prowess can, for a time, resemble quality of a sort. But technique is merely craft, and can be had rather easily. The art part comes in when you’re lucky enough to also build a soul into a machine. As Frankenstein figured out, that’s the difference between being God and playing God.
PERFECT VS RIGHT
By MICHAEL PERKINS
OUR VERY HUMAN DESIRE TO MAKE OUR PHOTOGRAPHY TECHNICALLY FLAWLESS can be observed in the results you can glean from a simple Google search of the words “perfect” and “photos”. Hundreds of tutorials and how-tos pop up on how to get “the perfect portrait”, “the perfect family picture”, “the perfect sunset”, and of course, “the perfect wedding shot”. The message is all too clear; when it comes to making pictures, we desperately want to get it right. But how to get it right…that’s a completely different discussion.
Because if, by “perfect”, we means a seamless blend of accurate exposure, the ideal aperture, and the dream composition, then I think we are barking up a whole forest of wrong trees. Mere technical prowess in photography can certainly be taught, but does obeying all these rules result in a “perfect” picture?
If you stipulate that you can produce a shot that is both precise in technique and soulless and empty, then we should probably find a more reasonable understanding of perfection. Perfect is, to me, a word that should describe the emotional impact of the result, not the capital “S” science that went into its execution. That is, some images are so powerful that we forget to notice their technical shortcomings. And that brings us to the second part of this exercise.
Can a flawed image move us, rouse us to anger, turn us on, help us see and feel? Absolutely, and they do all the time. We may talk perfection, but we are deeply impressed with honesty. Of course, in two hundred years, we still haven’t shaken the mistaken notion that a photograph is “reality”. It is not, and never was, even though it has an optical resemblance to it. It became apparent pretty early in the game that photographs could not only record, but persuade, and, yes, lie. So whatever you shoot, no matter how great you are at setting your settings, is an abstraction. That means it’s already less than perfect, even before you add your own flaws and faults. So the game is already lost. Or, depending on our viewpoint, a lot more interesting.
Go for impact over perfect every time. You can control how much emotional wallop is packed into your pictures just as surely as you can master the technical stuff, and pictures that truly connect on a deep level will kick the keester of a flawless picture every single time. The perfect picture is the one that brings back what you sent it to do. The camera can’t breathe life into a static image. Only a photographer can do that.
DATING YOUR EX
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOME PHOTOGRAPHERS’ EQUIPMENT CASES ARE LIKE MARY POPPINS’ CARPET BAG: once they’re opened, you are just certain someone’s going to haul a floor lamp out of the thing. I myself hate being laden with a punishing load of gear when on a shoot, so I spend as much time as possible mentally rehearsing before heading out, trying to take just one lens which will do 90% of what I’ll need and leaving the rest of the toys at home. I developed this habit mainly because most of my work is done in a field orientation. Were I more consistently a studio homebody, then I could have everything I own just inches away from me at all times. So it goes.
What happens with my kind of shooting is that you fall in and out of love with certain gear, with different optics temporarily serving as your “go to” lens. I personally think it’s good to “go steady” with a lens for extended periods of time, simply because you learn to make pictures in any setting, regardless of any arbitrary limits imposed by that lens. This eventually makes you more open to experimentation, simply because you either shoot what you brung or you don’t shoot at all.
This work habit means that I may have half a dozen lenses that go unused for extended periods of time. It’s the bachelor’s dilemma: while I was going steady with one, I wasn’t returning phone calls and texts from the others. And over time, I may actually become estranged from a particular lens that at one time was my old reliable. I may have found a better way to do what it did with other equipment, or I may have ceased to make images that it was particularly designed for….or maybe I just got sick to death of it and needed to see other people.
But just as I think you should spend a protracted and exclusive period with a new lens, a dedicated time during which you use it for nearly everything, I also believe that you should occasionally re-bond with a lens you hardly use anymore, making that optic, once again, your go-to, at least for a while. Again, there is a benefit to having to use what you have on hand to make things happen. Those of us who began with cheap fixed-focus toy cameras learned early how to work around the limits of our gear to get the results we wanted, and the same idea applies to a lens that may not do everything, but also may do a hell of a lot more than we first gave it credit for.
Re-establishing a bond with an old piece of gear is like dating your ex. It may just be a one-off lunch, or you could decide that you both were really made for each other all along.
ISLANDS IN THE SHADOWS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FIFTY-PLUS YEARS INTO MY LOVE AFFAIR WITH PHOTOGRAPHY, I now regard my earliest concept of a “good picture” as I regard other ideas of my youth….that is, seeing how I viewed the world given the limited scope of my own experience. When I first started making my own pictures, my models were drawn from the pages of the then-dominant photo magazines, like Life, Look, and National Geographic. Thus, for me, “good” photographs served either the reportorial functions of a news assignment or the color-saturated visions of landscape lovers. And that, for me, back then, was more than enough.
Both these kinds of images favored a fairly literal translation from the actual into the photographed: interpretation and abstraction was not anything I gave serious thought to, since I wanted my simple box-camera creations to look like “real photographs”. Art photography certainly existed, but very much at the edges of the culture. Most museums, by the early 1960’s, had still not mounted their own photographic exhibitions. Most popular photography, shaped by a large middle-class consumer culture (think Kodak Instamatic), was candid and personal in nature. Most people wanted Grandma to look like Grandma, unfiltered through any Warholian irony, commentary or experimentation. It was still a compliment for someone to say of your pictures that they “looked like a photograph”.
Strangely, one of the things that revised my thinking on what was “good” was an increased awareness of the works of some of the first photographers, pioneers who sweated mightily to wrangle the infant media into something like reliable performance. In their work with ever-changing combinations of plates, media, lenses and emulsions, the first photogs’ breakthrough photographs often failed from a purely technical viewpoint, producing irregular patches of light appearing randomly like islands in a sea of shadows.
But what these wizards’ first attempts often achieved, almost by accident, was the first real abstraction in photography: pieces of reality, rather than its totality: hints of the truth which invited speculation, examination. New questions were posed: what was missing, and did it matter if it wasn’t there? Could a photographer, in fact, deliberately extract parts of the “whole” picture, letting the minimum speak for everything that was left out? I gradually began to wander in search of answers to these questions.
There are times when a picture speaks louder the less it says. My original orientation to “good” images, seeing them as the most faithful translation of the literal onto film, expanded gradually to include whatever visual language communicates best in a given picture. Sometimes, in some very key instances, it helps to think like the first practitioners, who discovered, however haphazardly, that mere reality sometimes comes up short.
I’M NOT WHAT I USED TO BE (AND I FEEL FINE)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I OFTEN FEEL THAT HABIT IS THE GREATEST POTENTIAL THREAT to the creative process. Once an artist approaches a new project through the comfort of his accumulated routines, he’s well on the road to mediocrity. If you find yourself saying things like “I always do” or “I typically use”…. you’re saying, in effect, that you’ve learned everything you need to learn in terms of your art. You already have all the ingredients for success. The ideal exposure. The perfect lens. The optimum technique. The Lost Ark…
And, if a kind of self-satisfied inertia is death-on-toast for artistic growth, then the most valuable tool in a photographer’s goodie bag is the ability to archive and curate his own work…..to keep a solid, traceable time line that clearly shows the evolution of his approach…..including the degree to which that approach has either moved along or stood still. That means not only hanging on to many of your worst pictures but also re-evaluating your best ones…..since your first judgement calls on both kinds of images will often be subject to change. Certainly there are photographs that are so clearly wonderful or wretched that your opinion of them won’t change over time. But they constitute the minority of your work. Everything in that vast middle ground between agony and ecstasy is a rich source of self-re-evaluation.
Revisiting old shoots doesn’t always yield hidden treasures. Sometimes the shot you thought was best from a certain day was best. But there may be only a hair’s-breadth of difference between the winners and the also-rans, and, at least in my own experience, the also-rans are where all the education is. For example, in the image seen here of my wife taken almost ten years ago and re-examined recently, I know two new things: first, I now know precisely why, at the time, I thought it was the worst of a ten-frame burst. Second, at this stage, I realize that it’s actually a lot closer to what I currently find essential about Marian’s face than the shot I formerly regarded as the “keeper”. I’m just that different in under a decade.
As you grow as a photographer, you will revise nearly every “must” or “never” in your belief system, from composition to focus and beyond. As life molds you, it will likewise mold the ways you see and comment on that life. An archive of your work, warts and all, is the most valuable resource you can consult to trace that journey, and it will nourish and inform every picture you make from here on.
January 30, 2019 | Categories: Commentary, Conception, Editorial, Experimentation, Technique | Tags: Archival, Editing | Leave a comment