By MICHAEL PERKINS
TECHNOLOGY IS A SNAKESKIN, a perpetually decaying epithelial layer that we shed to reveal the fresh flesh (or the latest “version) just beneath. This death-and-rebirth cycle is so constant in our world as to be nearly invisible: things are in daily use, everywhere, until they’re not, and once they have been replaced, their new iterations seem inevitable, as if they had always been around, as if nothing else ever made any sense. How did we ever survive with that other old thing? How could we call ourselves advanced without the shiny new one?
Photography is at least partly about observing the mile markers at which we said goodbye to things. You can comprise a whole career just out of documenting objects that have made the journey from Latest And Greatest to Oh, That Old Thing, that inexorable slouch from You Simply Must Get One to Are You Still Using That? We don’t stop needing a function like television, but television sets themselves are as transient as mayflies. We don’t stop driving cars, but we have already torn down the first museums that enshrined the earliest automobiles. And so it goes.
In a recent walk through the old downtown in Flagstaff, Arizona, I seemed to pass something on every other block that reminded me of how quickly and completely we shed the tech snakeskin. In some cases, the old devices were still sort of in use, like the battered pay phone seen above. In other cases, they were so far out of synch with the times that they had been reduced to arcane decor in a store front window, as seen with the old Speed Graphic press cameras below, abstracted to mere form by their utter uselessness. In either case, I felt that a picture was warranted.
This all may be a symptom of my own rapidly advancing age. I certainly acknowledge a feeling that the entire merry-go-round of progress seems to have been cranked faster in recent years, although it may just be that I am catching slower than life is pitching. Either way, I find myself in the process of saying goodbye to lots of things lots more of the time. And even though I vainly try to slow this cascading process by catching glimpses of the casualties within my magic light box, I know, at some level, that it’s a losing battle. The snake sheds its skin, but never sheds a tear about that skin. It’s just something that was vital, until it wasn’t. Most of the time, we shed whole versions of ourselves, with little more thought or regret. It’s when we do pay attention to what’s been lost that we have to decide, in our pictures and our hearts, what of it was really important.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THIS MONTH’S 50th ANNIVERSARY OBSERVANCE (in July of 2019) of the first lunar landing in 1969 is, first and foremost, a celebration of the indomitability of the human spirit, recalling an era in which mankind’s potential was limited only by the scope of its imagination. In addition, for photographers, it is also a story of technical ingenuity and king-hell problem-solving skills. We have lived for a half-century with the crisp, iconic images that were brought back from the surface of the moon, but the larger story of what it took to capture them remains largely untold.
And a great story it is.
NASA’s eventual selection of which camera would go to the moon was influenced in the early days of the space race by Mercury astronaut Wally Schirra, himself an amateur photographer. Given that the earliest cameras aboard space flights had proved a technical disappointment, Schirra suggested that a version of his f/2.8, 80mm Hasselblad 500C be modified to document future missions. The legendary Swiss optics company was brought in by NASA to consult on the complete re-engineering of its consumer camera, which, over time, involved stripping off its cosmetic leatherette trim as well as removing the unit’s viewfinder, auxiliary shutter and reflex mirror. While most modifications were made to reduce the weight of the units or to improve their performance under extreme temperatures, others were made purely to ensure the simplest possible operation under once-in-a-lifetime shooting opportunities. The first NASA-modified Hasselblads were used by Schirra himself during his Mercury 8 orbital mission, and in the capture of Ed White’s historic space walk aboard Gemini IV, with more sophisticated changes effectively turning one of the most sophisticated cameras on the planet into little more than a high-end point-and-shoot by the time the Apollo missions got underway in the late 1960’s.
Shutter speed for the lunar Hasselblads was fixed, but a selrction of apertures could be chosen by the astronauts to ensure sharp depth-of-field in a variety of situations. Surface images were taken by what came to be called a Hasselblad Data Camera (a re-jiggered 500C), while a separate HEC, or Hasselblad Electric Camera, would be pointed at the surface from inside the lunar landing module. Like Hasselblad, Kodak was engaged by NASA to re-engineer its domestic product, chiefly its premium films for the missions, both by widening frame size from 35 to 70mm and reducing the thickness of the celluloid sheeting to allow 70 shots per camera roll instead of the earthbound 12. The problem of cranking the camera from frame to frame was obviated by specially mounted exterior cartridges that automatically advanced the film after each click. Kodak also formulated several different speeds of film in both monochrome and color. Finally, to make the whole process even more fool-proof, Hasselblad generated special visual operator manuals for the astronauts (shown at left), while the entire camera assembly was permanently attached to the center of an astronaut’s lunar suit (in the case of Apollo 11, “first man” Neil Armstrong) freeing up the spaceman’s hands for NASA’s immense grocery list of surface experiments.
Success in space travel is measured in inches, and also in ounces. And, being keenly aware of how much the mission’s newly collected specimens (such as space rocks) would add to Apollo’s total weight upon its return flight, the crews knew that a calculated swap-out was necessary, and so a total of twelve Hasselblad bodies were left on the moon, after their film packs were detached and loaded on the lunar module. The prospect of free (if pragmatically unattainable) cameras has never been so tantalizing. But as we say down here on earth, the picture, and not the gear, is what’s important, something you can see for yourself in any of the 8,400 Apollo-era images that have recently been uploaded to Flickr. Merry Christmas.
So if a single picture is worth a thousand words, then…..well, you do the math, with a calculator that, today, easily exceeds the computing power of the entire Apollo 11 spacecraft. Technology is the end product of curiosity, and the nerdish odyssey of the Hassies of the moon serve as a good reminder that all the best photography is about exploration, of the vast space either inside or outside the shooter’s imagination.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE RECENT RESURGENCE OF INSTANT CAMERAS AND FILM IS NOT A REVOLUTION: it’s more like a symptom. I mean, eventually everything in the history of photography is a symptom of something larger in human development, innit? One year it’s a certain hot piece of gear, another it’s a trend in technique. The medium is a barometer of sorts on who we are and what we value. And now, for a while (again), it’s the stage for a kind of return to an imagined wonderful yesteryear.
It’s not hard to see how the youngest generation of shooters (the biggest demographic chunk of new instant pix users) has embraced a revisitation of the golden age of Polaroid. Making generally flawless images by the zillions in the digital age has, for some, sparked the question is any of this stuff designed to last? Are any of the thousands of pictures you squeezed off with your phone “keepers” as to memory, emotional resonance, uniqueness? And can an analog picture designed to be an unrepeatable original, tangibly printed out in the hand, promote the production of photos that are more special, more warmly personal? In short, is Polaroid Originals film (or Fuji/Instax film, for that matter) the next vinyl LP?
Scan through the most ecstatic raves about the instant photography experience and you’ll see lots of references to emotion, shared fun, even a kind of nostalgic pang for pictures that are, well, as crappy as most Polaroids were before the original company shuttered (sorry) in 2001. In fact, many of the most enthusiastic supporters of instanting readily admit to the technical clunkiness of their favorite cameras and the so-lousy-it’s-cool aesthetic of the prints, as if making technically inferior pictures is some badge of either spontaneity or authenticity. It should be noted that both the revival of plastic, Soviet-era toy cameras by the Lomography crowd a few years back and the re-emergence of Polaroid were spearheaded by European art school hipsters, both espousing how “real” random or uneven results are, as opposed to the bloodless precision of digital imaging. Here, however, as I see it, are the real constants of both the revived Polaroid brand and its (slightly) superior cousins at Fuji /Instax:
Most everybody’s instant film renders colors horribly.
Films formats like Instax mini (waay smaller than Polaroid) are virtually useless for complex compositions: the images are just too teeny.
All instant film is too damned expensive, making some prints cost out at $1.00 or more apiece.
Polaroid Originals (the new guardians of Polaroid’s old intellectual properties) brought back the emotional sensation of instant pix, but all of its problems as well…including crummy resolution, low contrast, and meh optics.
And, most importantly, there are, at this writing, almost no mid-line price instant cameras that afford a broad array of hands-on settings. This means almost no control at the low end (less than $75) and exorbitant prices on the high-end (over $700 in many cases). It also means you can either take cheap/bad pictures with no creative override whatsoever or sink a fortune into a camera with a huge learning curve that still may pump out technically inferior pictures. That cost a lot.
Certainly the “cool” value of instants is an emotional by-product of the digital age. Unlike the thousands of images residing on your phone, many of which may never be seen or shared even hours after they’re created, you can physically hold and pass around a Polaroid-esque print. And there may even be an ancillary benefit for serious photographers as well: since your resources are limited and expensive, you will likely spend more time planning shots, editing on the fly, even rejecting bad ideas before they’re even committed to film. Or, you could be chosen the winner on The Bachelor, in which the sky’s the limit. In a way, instants impose the same restraint on a shooter that all film does, the same thing that happens to digital shooters that are ten shots away from battery death, or stuck shooting everything with one mediocre lens on a given day. When you’re forced to slow down and plan, different pictures happen.
So…. Instant Photography, Part II, The Sequel presents a real challenge for its current avatars. Several standout models aside, Dr. Edwin Land, the inventor of Polaroid, did not bring great cameras to the masses, nor did he ever create a world-beating film or amazing optics. He did give a world bent on instant gratification a fun toy to serve that sensation up on demand (and at a premium price). But while his heirs may eventually succeed where he failed, generating both the tools and the medium for great photographic work, right now, instant photography feels like the first three Star Wars prequels. And if you think that’s a compliment, then I have a Jar-Jar Binks tee-shirt I’d like to sell you.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE MASS PROLIFERATION OF THE CELL PHONE has fundamentally changed the dynamics of personal interaction, in a way unforeseen in the first days of Alexander Graham Bell’s original devices. In general, the first telephones were seen as an overall boon to mankind. They annihilated distance, sped up commerce, established connections between every person on the planet and every other person on the planet. If anyone in the nineteenth century had been familiar with the phrase “win-win”, the arrival of the phone might have elicited its first use.
But let’s now examine conversation itself, thinking of it as potentially photographic, an exchange which may not be overheard, but which, in terms of street photography, can be, if you will, overseen. Many wonderful images have been captured of people in the act of this kind of vigorous verbal ballet, their joy, vulnerability and engagement making for solid, natural visual drama. And the thing that has been at the base of many a conversation is that it was necessary for people to be physically adjacent to each other in order to have it. The telephone’s physical “reach” was finite. You had to be where a phone was to use one. From home. From the office. Or whenever Clark Kent freed up a booth.
With the arrival of the mobile, however, came the elimination, in millions more conversations, of the need for face-on communications….which, in turn, eliminated the “overseen” direct chat from the photographer’s daily street menu. Certainly it isn’t hard to see at least one half of a million calls ( try walking the streets without seeing one), but the narrative of a traditional conversation, captured visually by the camera, offers substantially more impact. Half a phone conversation is certainly real, but it isn’t real interesting. Technology is never really win-win, after all. In actuality, you trade off managable losses for potential major wins.
There is something palpably authentic about the connection between the women in the above image. And unlike the case of a shot of someone on their phone, the camera in this case doesn’t have to suggest or guess. It can show two people in active engagement. Trading that photographic opportunity away for mobility and convenience is one of the real consequences of the wireless revolution. And as a photographer, you may find yourself longing for a bygone, more personal kind of connectivity.
” OH SURE, I USE MY PHONE SOMETIMES“, you still hear hide-bound photographers grudgingly admit, “but when it’s important, I use my real camera.” This snotty, down-the-nose belief that only the cameras of one’s early experience can be regarded with any degree of respect or deference persists, runs against the grain of all reason. It’s a ridiculous statement, born of equal parts arrogance and ignorance, an insane notion that only some kinds of cameras can produce important images. Yeah, yeah, and only a Cadillac can drive you to the drugstore.
As the global dominance of the once-mighty DSLR recedes further into the twilight, it’s not even necessary to take sides on which piece of equipment is better, more relevant, more “real”. That’s falling into the same mental pothole of those who refuse to accept the mobile camera as a true instrument. Once and for all: shoot what you want with what you want. But please don’t pretend that the revolution isn’t happening. The very definition of what a camera “is” has been raging for nearly twenty years at this writing, and the weight of the evidence falls predominantly on the side of change, not tradition.
Big-time disclaimer department: I usually don’t cite current consumer stats in any of these posts, since blog archives are forever and ever-twisting trends quickly make liars out of all prophets. But in this case, I’ll just front-load the figures that follow with a few hefty qualifiers. The rankings below, listing the top camera brands and models for a very specific market, are extracted from user numbers for contributing photographers on Flickr, one of the biggest photo sharing sites on the planet as of the first week of November, 2016, which is when I compiled these abstracts. The list presented here lists the top ten most camera makes and models from that time. In order of popularity, then, the ten most used cameras by Flickr members this week are/were:
Apple iPhone 6
Samsung Galaxy S6
Canon EOS fD Mark II*
Sony Xperia Z3
Motorola Moto X
The asterisks denote the DSLR cameras on the list. The other remaining models are cellular-phone based. All ten of these manufacturers have multiple models that were ranked among Flickr members’ most-used cameras, but what you see here are the top-ranked models within each brand. There were several venerable DSLR manufacturers that made the top 20, such as Pentax (#11), Leica (#16) and Ricoh (#17). As another point of comparison, the highest ranked mobile, Apple’s iPhone 6 accounted for over 518 million items on Flickr with over 19,000 daily users, with the highest ranked DSLR, Canon’s EOS FD Mark II accounting for 138 million+ items and over 3,200 daily users.
The number one selling camera, as I like to say, is the IMHO (In My Humble Opinion) Model 1. Brand loyalty for its own sake is beyond over with. So is format loyalty or lens loyalty. There is only what works. You can drive that Cadillac to the drugstore, but the Prius gets better mileage and may even boast superior crash specs. With cars as with cameras, drive what turns you on.
Just get where you’re going.
How charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably and remain fixed upon the paper! And why should it not be possible? I asked myself. –William Henry Fox Talbot
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IMAGINE THAT, IN ADDITION TO MAKING THE AUTOMOBILE PRACTICAL AND AFFORDABLE, Henry Ford had also been the world’s foremost racing driver. Or that Rembrandt had also invented canvas. The history of invention occasionally puts forth outliers who not only envision an improvement for the world, but become renowned as the best, first models for how to use it. The early days of photography saw several such giants, tinkerers who nudged the infant technique forward even as they became its first artists.
Unlike the telephone or the incandescent bulb, there was, for the camera, no single parent, but rather a series of talented midwives who massaged the young art from exotic hobby to mass movement, the most democratic of all art forms. Thus, William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) was not the first person to use light and chemistry to permanently fix and preserve images. But, without his contributions, printed photograph might never have evolved, nor would the negative, the easiest method for printing endless numbers of copies from a single master.
Talbot’s work began as a way to improve upon the daguerreotype, which dominated the photographic world in the early 1800’s and which was, as a positive image printed directly on glass, literally one of a kind, barring duplication or distribution. If photography were to be widely practiced, Talbot reasoned, a practical method had to be created to allow photos to be made from photos.
Talbot’s first attempts consisted of ordinary typing paper coated in a solution of salt and silver nitrate. The resulting silver-chloride mixture was highly sensitive to light, darkening as it was exposed, and registering the light and dark values of a subject backwards, as a negative. However, over the long exposures needed at the time, the darkening process often accelerated to make the image completely black, so Talbot had to experiment with other chemicals to render the process stable, to develop just so much and then stop. The next step was creating what would become the first chemical developers, allowing for shorter exposure times and more vivid images printed from his paper negatives.
Various refinements in the “calotype” process followed, along with a hash of bitter patent battles between Talbot and other inventors evolving similar systems. Interestingly, along the way, the need to demonstrate the superior results of his products had the accidental side effect of making Talbot himself one of the period’s most practiced early photographers, giving him equal influence over inventors and artists alike.
In time, Talbot’s calotype system would be further improved by coating glass with collodion, making for a sharper and more detailed negative from which to create prints. The final step toward universal adoption of photography would be George Eastman’s idea for a flexible celluloid-based film negative, the process that ushered in the age of the snapshot and put a camera in Everyman’s hands.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MANY OF THE MOST IMPORTANT SCIENTIFIC DISCOVERIES ARE ACTUALLY DETOURS, things unearthed by accident in search of something completely different. Marconi was not looking to create the entertainment medium known as radio, but merely a wireless way to send telegraphs. The tough resin known as Bakelite was originally supposed to be a substitute for shellac, since getting the real thing from insects was slow and pricey. Instead, it became the first superstar of the plastics era, used to making everything from light plugs to toy View-Masters.
And the man who, for all practical purposes, invented photography was merely seeking a shortcut for the tracing of drawings.
Nicéphore Niépce, born in France in 1765, plied his trade in the new techniques of lithography, but fell short in his basic abilities as an artist, and searched for a way to get around that shortcoming by technical means. He became proficient in the creation of images with a camera obscura, a light-tight box with a pinhole on one side which projected an inverted picture of whatever it was pointed at on the opposite inside wall of the container, the pinhole acting as a glassless, small-aperture lens. Larger versions of the gadget were used by artists to project a subject onto an area from which tracings of the image could be done, then finished into drawings. Niépce grew impatient with the long lag time involved in the tracing work and began to experiment with various compounds that might chemically react to light, causing the camera’s image to be permanently etched onto a surface, making for a quicker and more accurate reference study.
Niépce tried a combination of fixing chemicals like silver chloride and asphalt, burning faint images onto surfaces ranging from glass to paper to lithographic stone. Some of his earliest attempts registered as negatives, which faded to complete black when observed in sunlight. Others resulted in images which could be used as a master from which to print other images, effectively a primitive kind of photocopy. Finally, having upgraded the quality of his camera obscura and coating a slab of pewter with bitumin, Niépce, around 1827 successfully exposed a permanent, if cloudy image from the window of his country house in La Gras. His account recalled that the exposure took eight hours, but later scientific recreations of the experiment believe it could actually have taken several days. Even at that, Niépce might have recorded a good deal more detail in the image had he waited even longer. In an ironic lesson to all impatient future shooters, the world’s first photograph had, in fact, been under-exposed.
Rather than merely create a short-cut for sketch artists, Nicéphore Niépce’s discovery, which he called heliography (“sun writing”), resulted in a new, distinctly different art that would compete with traditional graphics, forever changing the way painters and non-painters viewed the world. Centuries later, harnessing light in a box is still the task at hand, and the eternally novel miracle of photography.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS A GLOBAL RACE, ACCELERATING RAPIDLY SINCE THE DAWN OF THE DIGITAL AGE, toward better, faster image sensors in cameras great and small, as we wage the eternal photographic battle against the limits of light. It’s one more reason why this is the best time in the medium’s history to be making pictures.
It’s hard to express what a huge game-changer this is. Film-based photography advanced the science of gathering light in slow fits and starts for more than a century, with even some of the most popular consumer films rated at very slow speeds (Kodachrome) or, if faster, extraordinarily high grain (Tri-X). Suddenly, the world’s shadowy interiors, from stadiums to basements, give up their secrets to even bargain-priced cameras as ISO ratings for sensors climb and noise/grain abatement gets better and better.
The above image, taken inside the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, would have, in film terms, required either a full-open aperture (making a consistent depth of field from front to back tricky), a slow exposure (hard to go handheld when you’re on a tour) or a film rated at 400 or above. Plus luck.
By contrast, in digital, it’s a casual snap. The f/5.6 aperture keeps things sharp from front to back, and the ISO rating of 250 results in noise that’s so low that it’s visually negligible. The statue of television pioneer Philo Farnsworth is dark bronze, and so a little re-contrasting of the image was needed in post-editing to lighten up the deeper details, but again, the noise is so low that it’s really only visible in color. As it happens, I actually like the contrast between the dark statue and the bright room better in monochrome anyway, so everyone wins.
The message here is: push your camera. Given today’s technology, it will give you some amazing things, and the better you understand it the more magic it will produce. We are just on the cusp of a time when we can effectively stow the flash in the closet except in very narrow situations and capture stuff we only used to dream about. Get out there and start swinging for the fences.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I GENERALLY STAY OUT OF THE PREDICTION BUSINESS, and with good reason. Anyone who sets himself up in the prophecy business had better keep his day job, a truth which has been demonstrated time and again by any number of junior league wizards who believe they know how to read the tea leaves in Tomorrowland. That’s why I have always kept the pages of The Normal Eye pretty free of excess doses of prognostication on what’s next or what’s inevitable regarding photography.
However, even though it’s foolish to cite specific equipment or inventions as “proof” that a new day has arrived, it’s often obvious when something of a tipping point is coming that will transform the entire process of making pictures. And I feel confident that we are now at one of those points as the latest smartphone cameras begin the blurring, if not the erasure, of difference between photography in mobile devices and photography from traditional gear, especially, for the first time, DSLRs.
The main gist of this tipping point is the ability of mobiles, finally, to allow for manual override of many camera functions that were, in earlier years, completely automated. Phone cameras in their original iteration were an all-or-nothing proposition, in that you clicked and hoped that the device’s auto settings would serve up an acceptable image. As for any kind of artistic control, you had to try to intervene after the shutter snap, via apps. It was the opposite of the personal control that was baked into DLSRs, and many photographers rightly balked at abandoning their Nikons and Canons for what was essentially a compact point-and-shoot.
But we are suddenly in very different territory now. The newest models by a variety of smartphone manufacturers will not only offer shooting apertures as wide as f/1.8, drastically increasing the flow of light to the camera’s sensors, but will also give shooters the option to either tap-customize a variety of shooting settings on-screen, or merely leave the device on full auto. The ability to override factory defaults is what separates the camera men from the camera boys, so this, in the words of Joe Biden, is a big &%$#ing deal. It means that many photographers who never even considered doing their “serious” shooting on a smartphone might at least mull over the option of leaving their full-function DSLRs at home, at least occasionally.
It would be foolish to predict the wholesale desertion of capital “C” Cameras by the shooting public, since such changes never come about for everyone at one time. Plenty of people continued to ride horses after the first flivvers rattled out of the factory. But there is certainly a major debate on the horizon about how much, and what kind of camera allows you to get the shot, easier and more of the time.
And getting the shot, as we know, is all that has ever mattered. All the rest is cheek music.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE FUTURE DOESN’T ARRIVE ALL AT ONCE, just as the past doesn’t immediately vanish completely. In terms of technology, that means that eras kinds of smear across each other in a gradual “dissolve”. Consider the dial telephone, which persisted in various outposts for many years after the introduction of touch-tone pads, or, more specifically, Superman’s closet, the phone booth, which stubbornly overstayed its welcome long past the arrival of the cel. The “present” is always a mishmosh of things that have just arrived and things that are going away. They sort of pass each other, like workers at change of shift.
Photographically, this means that there are always relics of earlier eras that persist past their sell-by date. They provide context to life as part of a kind of ever-flowing visual history. It also means that you need to seize on these relics lest they, and their symbolic power, are lost to you forever. Everything that enjoys a brief moment as an “everyday object” will eventually recede in use to such a degree that younger generations couldn’t even visually identify it or place it in its proper time order (a toaster from 1900 today resembles a Victorian space heater more than it does a kitchen appliance).
Ironically, this is a double win for photographers. You can either shoot an object to conjure up a bygone era, or you can approach it completely without context, as a pure design element. You can produce substantial work either way.
Some of the best still life photography either denies an object its original associations or isolates it so that it is just a compositional component. The thing is to visually re-purpose things whose original purpose is no longer. Photography isn’t really about what things look like. It’s more about what you can make them look like.