the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

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SHOOTING WITH AN IMHO MODEL 1

dsc_1331By MICHAEL PERKINS

” 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*

Nikon D7100*

Sony Xperia Z3

Motorola Moto X

HTC One

LG G4

Panasonic DMC-FZ200*

Fujifilm XTI*

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.

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RESOLVED

1/100 sec., f/1.8, ISO 160, 35mm.

Los Angeles, California, November 22, 2013. 1/100 sec., f/1.8, ISO 160, 35mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THERE IS A DECIDED BIAS IN THE CONCEPT OF THE NEW YEARS’ RESOLUTION TOWARD THE NEGATIVE. Since we often define ourselves in terms of what we haven’t yet perfected in ourselves, many resolutions revolve around losing something (weight), stopping something (binge-watching Ren & Stimpy) or rooting something icky out of our personality or habit structure (insert your own wish list here).

Fair enough. But, in order for us to grow, we also need to resolve to add, to enhance, to amplify the best part of ourselves. And, for photographers, I can’t think of a single more compelling resolution than the pledge to see better and develop our expressive vocabulary in the new year. We already have the toys, God knows. It has never been easier to get your hands on image-making gear or to disseminate the images that you manage to create. Photography has reached its all-time high-water mark for democratization, with 2013 showing us that gasp-inducing, heart-stopping pictures can and will be made by anyone, anywhere. There is no longer an artificial barrier between pro and amateur, just a subtler one between those of us who have practiced eyes and those of us (nearly all of us) that need to tone our seeing muscles a bit tighter.

1/250 sec., f/1.8, ISO 100, 35mm.

1/250 sec., f/1.8, ISO 100, 35mm.

Photography can obscure or reveal, defining or defying clarity as we choose. A resolution to keep seeing, to open our eyes wider, is more important than resolving to “take more interesting pictures”, “do fewer self-indulgent selfies” or “try all the cool filters on Instagram”, since it goes to the heart of what this marvelous art can do better than any other in the history of mankind. What can be better than promising ourself to always be hungry, always be shooting, always be straining ourselves to the breaking point?

For me, a good year is when I can look back over my shoulder during the last waning moments of December 31st and see at least some small, measurable distance between where I’m standing and where I stood last January 1st. Sometimes the distance is measured in micro-inches, other years in feet or even yards. There are no guarantees, nor can there be: human experience, and what we draw forth from it, is variable, and there will be years of no crops as well as years of bumper harvests.

But let us resolve to see, and see as fearlessly as we can. The Normal Eye has always been about its stated journey from “taking” pictures to “making” them, acknowledging that it’s seldom a straight-line path to perfection, and, in fact, we learn more from our failures than our successes.  Happy New Year.


“C” NOTES (THOUGHTS ON POST #100)

Hey, we're all just trying to catch light in a box. Use any box you have, just grab something, like, say, the Empire State Building. 1/320 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm

Hey, we’re all just trying to catch light in a box. Use any box you have, just grab something, like, say, the Empire State Building. 1/320 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

SOMETHING THAT LIVES IN THE NETHER WORLD BETWEEN A DIARY AND A PHILOSOPHIC SCREED, at the intersection of passion and obsession. That’s the no-man’s-land  I aimed this blog at 100 posts ago, today. From Day One, The Normal Eye was, and remains, an attempt to get beyond the mere technical doing of a photograph and scratch away at the ticket of techtalk to reveal why I was trying to capture a given idea inside a box.

There are, and have ever been, far better teachers on a purely technical level than I can ever hope to be. And, let’s face it, knowing just the metadata on a shot is no guarantee that something magical will happen, just as high-end cameras don’t guarantee high-concept images. No, the only thing I’m expert at, in any way, is judging my own intentions, in hungering after a visualization of what I feel in my bones.

All of you patient ones out there already know me, because your dad or your corny uncle or your nerdly, bookish kid is just like me. I am “that guy”. I have always been that guy. The guy who pipes up, in completely unrelated conversations, with the observation that “it’s so cool what the light is doing right now”. The guy who comes back from a family gathering with, strangely, no pictures of the family whatever, but a killer shot of what everyone concurs is a colorful shmear of…something. The guy who is so busy looking for “the moment” that he forgets to be in the moment.

Guilty, guilty, guilty, and, ouch, guilty.

Funny thing is (and this is the mainspring that drives The Normal Eye), I’m almost as excited about where I’ll fail next than where I’ll succeed. If less than half of the pictures out of a new batch doesn’t make me groan, what the hell was I thinking?, then I’m not working hard enough, and certainly not reaching far enough. Nothing artistically good comes from a place of safety, and repeating your past choices doesn’t repeat your past successes.

Those of you who have done me the great honor of reading and following this mess have my undying gratitude. And as for those who have taken the extra time to comment as well, thanks for becoming the most vital link in the chain. Bloggers may be doomed to forever shout off the edge of a cliff, but it’s a real Robinson Crusoe moment when some man (or woman) Friday actually shouts back. Thank you, one and all.

As far as there are clearly stated goals for any enterprise such as this (except to keep on going), I can faithfully pledge to keep the process as honest as possible, and to let my inner child, the brat who first picked up a camera, to shout down the rational adult, who unlike the kid, occasionally forgets that this is all supposed to be about discovery, and wonder. If I lose track of that, the whole game is up. I also hope to act as a better conduit to the best work going on in photography today, in these pages and through my Twitter feed @mpnormaleye. The great news: the golden age of photography is happening here, now. Everything that has gone before, while amazing, is mere prologue to what is on the way.

That is pretty damned exciting.

So thanks for where this has taken us so far, and please sign up for another hitch. I can’t promise I’ll dazzle you. But I do promise I’ll be dazzled.

After all, it’s so cool what the light is doing, right now.

Where’s my box?

follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.


NO TEACHER, NO GURU, NO METHOD

Waiting for inspiration. Yeah, how's that workin' out for ya?

Waiting for inspiration. Yeah, how’s that workin’ out for ya?  

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THERE MAY NOT BE SUCH A THING IN PHOTOGRAPHY AS “STYLE”.

Hmm? Come again? No way for the artist to brand his persona on his output, to accumulate a body of work stamped with his own exclusive, and wonderful, identity?

Well, given the special nature of photography, maybe not. Think about it. We all emerged as the quasi-legitimate spawn of painting. Yes, you can struggle and wriggle, but The Brush is essentially our aesthetic daddy, the most important shaper of our inherited rules on what to look at, how to see. Of course, we were no sooner whelped than we began dissing the old man, saying we were not at all like painting, that our means of measuring the world was distinct, different, revolutionary. The upshot is that the typical artists’ claim to a personal style, an identifiable visual signature, may not be, in image-making, how we do business at all.

Van Morrison (God’s gift to moody poets) summed it all up in the title of one of his classic albums, No Teacher, No Guru, No Method. And that means that, unlike the painters of antiquity, none of us shoots enough of any one approach to the world to claim that any of us has a “style”. Think about your own images. Is every one of them representative of one kind of thought? Or do you, like most of us, flit from one dynamic to another? Are any of you 100% committed to landscapes? Sacred subjects? Abstractions? Street? Cute kitties? No, and none of us ever were.

One of the most frustrating things about reviewing the careers of the greatest poets (there’s that word again) of photography is that there is no central thread, no typical image for many of the masters. What is the iconic signature of a Steichen, an Avedon, a Weston? Review forty years of photographs from Alfred Eisenstadt during his tenure at Life magazine and pick out one picture which defines him. You can’t. There is no Mona Lisa moment. And perhaps there shouldn’t be.

I’ve been shooting for over forty years, and if someone were to ask me to select one image that absolutely represented the essential me, I’d be dumbstruck. And maybe that’s to be expected. The world’s most democratic medium is also democratic toward its subject matter as well. In photography, unlike painting, everything can be a picture. Anything can be plucked out of the continuity of time and frozen for us to ponder, worship, objectify, or loathe.

We are all self-taught, self-created, without antecedent or influence. No Teacher, No Guru, No Method. It should make us feel free, and can, of course, make us terrified as well.

Here’s the central nugget of that freedom feeling: photography isn’t here “because of”, or “in order to”, or “so that”…..it’s just here.

And that is enough.

(follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.)


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……


A BLOCK OF THE MILE

The building that originally housed Desmond’s department store, and one of the mostly intact survivors of a golden age of Art Deco along Los Angeles’ historic “Miracle Mile”.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

CALIFORNIA’S CITIES, FOR STUDENTS OF DESIGN, contain the country’s largest trove of Art Deco, the strange mixture of product packaging, graphics, and architectural ornamentation that left its mark on most urban centers in America between 1927 and the beginning of World War II. The Golden State seems to have a higher concentration of the swirls, chevrons, zigzags and streamlined curves than many of the country’s “fly over” areas, and the urban core of Los Angeles is something like a garden of delights for Deco-dent fans, with stylistic flourishes preserved in both complete buildings and fragmented trim accents on business centers that have been re-purposed, blighted, re-discovered, resurrected or just plain neglected as the 20th century became the 21st. And within that city’s core (stay with me) the up-again-down-again district once dubbed the “Miracle Mile”, centered along Wilshire Boulevard,  remains a bounteous feast of Deco splendor (or squalor, depending on your viewpoint).

 

The Miracle Mile was born out of the visionary schemes of developer A. W. Ross, who, in the 1920’s, dreamed of drawing retail dollars to an area covered in farm fields and connected only tentatively to downtown L.A. by the old “red car” trolley line and the first privately owned automobiles. Ignoring dire warnings that the creation of a massive new business district in what was considered the boondocks was financial suicide, Ross pressed ahead, and, in fact, became one of the first major developers in the area to design his project for the needs of passing car traffic. Building features, display windows, lines of sight and signage were all crafted to appeal to an auto going down the streets at about thirty miles per hour. As a matter of pure coincidence, the Mile’s businesses, banks, restaurants and attractions were also all being built just as the Art Deco movement was in its ascendancy, resulting in a dense concentration of that style in the space of just a few square miles.

The period-perfect marquee for the legendary El Rey Theatre, formerly a movie house and now a live-performance venue.

It was my interest in vintage theatres from the period that made the historic El Rey movie house, near the corner of Wilshire and Dunsmuir Avenue, my first major discovery in the area. With its curlicue neon marquee, colorful vestibule flooring and chromed ticket booth, the El Rey is a fairly intact survivor of the era, having made the transition from movie house to live-performance venue. And, as with most buildings in the neighborhood, photographs of it can be made which smooth over the wrinkles and crinkles of age to present an idealized view of the Mile as it was.

But that’s only the beginning.

On the same block, directly across the street, is another nearly complete reminder of the Mile’s majesty, where, at 5514 Wilshire, the stylish Desmond’s department store rose in 1929 as a central tower flanked by two rounded wings, each featuring enormous showcase windows. With its molded concrete columns (which resemble abstract drawn draperies), its elaborate street-entrance friezes and grilles, and the waves and zigzags that cap its upper features, the Desmond had endured the Mile’s post 1950’s decline and worse, surviving to the present day as host to a Fed Ex store and a few scattered leases. At this writing, a new owner has announced plans to re-create the complex’s glory as a luxury apartment building.

The details found in various other images in this post are also from the same one-block radius of the Wilshire portion of the Mile. Some of them frame retail stores that bear little connection to their original purpose. All serve as survivor scars of an urban district that is on the bounce in recent years, as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (installed in a former bank building), the La Brea Tar Pits, and other attractions along the Mile, now dubbed “Museum Row”, have brought in a new age of enhanced land value, higher rents and business restarts to the area. Everything old is new again.

The Wilshire Boulevard entrance to Desmond’s, with its period friezes, ornate grillwork and curved showcases intact.

Ironically, the district that A.W. Ross designed for viewing from behind the wheel of a car now rewards the eye of the urban walker, as the neighborhoods of the Miracle Mile come alive with commerce and are brought back to life as a true pedestrian landscape. Walk a block or two of the Mile if you get a chance. The ghosts are leaving, and in their place you can hear a beating heart.

The wonderfully patterned lobby floor and streamlined ticket booth of the El Rey.

Suggested reading: DECO LAndmarks: Art Deco Gems of Los Angeles, by Arnold Schwartzman, Chronicle Books, 2005.

Suggested video link:  Desmond’s Department Store    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJj3vxAqPtA

 


LOMO MOJO

A perfectly average handheld interior shot taken without flash in 2012. What is amazing, to an old geezer like myself, is how completely impossible it would have been, back in the day, to capture even this modest shot with the very same type of toy plastic camera now being sold to “lomography” enthusiasts and marketed as “hip”.  Light leaks and color streaks do not an image make.  

I AM INTERESTED MOST IN WHAT MAKES PEOPLE WANT TO TAKE PICTURES, as well as what makes them take the best ones. In that spirit, I have been recently re-examining the decade-long debate on the trend known as lomography, or the use of plastic bodied, low-tech toy cameras as serious imaging instruments. In renewing the impact of “lomo”, with its rudimentary shutter speeds and fixed-focus meniscus lenses, I have pored over four bazillion angry diatribes by those who condemn the cameras’ extreme technical limits and dismiss their enthusiasts as trendy phonies. I have also tracked its rabid defense by ardent users who celebrate lomo cameras as a way back to a kind of artistic innocence, a return to a photographic Eden in which we all shoot with our hearts instead of our heads. At the end of it all, does it matter what anyone thinks about how we take pictures if something, anything comes along to want them to take more of them? Probably not, and I certainly can’t decide the issue, if it needs deciding at all. Still, a brief re-examination of the whole concept, as I see it, might be worth a run-through. Your mileage may vary…

And, yes, before we proceed, I freely admit that a few world-class photos have been taken with cameras that are one step above drawing the image yourself with a crayon, just as a few amazing canvasses have been created by artists who hurl paint the way a monkey flings poo. I leave it to your discretion whether these accomplishments are vindication of a great vision, or happy accidents granted by the randomness fairy.

Backstory section: as a lifelong shooter, I enthusiastically began taking pictures with the very types of cameras which lomo fans so highly prize. This was dictated purely by economics, not art. It’s fair to say that, with the opening of every new packet of prints that arrived from the processor in those days, I spent more time cursing the smotheringly narrow limits of my light-leaky box and its take-it-or-leave-it settings than I spent cheering the results as some kind of creative breakthrough. I knew what real cameras could do. My father had a real camera. I had a toy, a toy which would betray my best efforts at breathtaking captures pretty much at will.

I didn’t feel avant-garde. I didn’t feel edgy.

I felt like I wanted a real camera.

Turns out that the manufacturers of my Imperial Mark XII, along with the Holga, the Diana, and other constellations in the lomo firmament, eventually came to the same conclusion. Many of their cheap products were made in the underdeveloped economies of  iron-curtain countries.They cranked these babies out with the chief object of making a quick buck on undemanding first-time buyers and children. There was no attempt to market these clunkers as serious instruments; they were the fixed-focus, plastic-lensed equivalent of a bootlegged Dylan album taped off the mixer board. Eventually, these companies went on to other ways of separating the rubes from their rubles.

Now factor in the effect of time, nostalgia and (wait for it) ironic marketing. In the beginning of the digital age, photography arrives at a crossroads. Film is being challenged, if not falling under actual attack. Photography seems, to some, to have surrendered to a soulless technology rather than the “warm”, “human”, “hands-on” feel of analog picture-making. And as for the black arts of post-processing, the digital darkroom begins to be demonized only slightly less than the clubbing of baby seals. The unexpected, the unforseeable, the random begins to be attractive, simply because it spits in the eye of all this robo-gearhead slide toward pixels and light sensors.

A longing for a simpler time is observed among the young, who long to dress in forty-year old clothes and who regard vinyl records as more “authentic” than digital audio, not in spite of the scratches, but because of them. Film photography and its worst accidental artifacts becomes “retro” product, to be marketed through trendy boutiques and vintage stores. The sales message: anyone can take a picture (true, actually). The box isn’t important (less true). None of it’s important (outright lie). Shoot from the hip! Look, it made a weird rainbow streak on the picture, isn’t that cool? 

Cool at a premium cost, as well. Cameras that went for $5.00 as toys in the ’60’s are now topping $100.00 for the same optics and defects in 2012, with one principal, cynical difference; in the newly produced cameras, the optical defects are being engineered in on purpose, so that every frame comes saturated not only with garish color but attitude as well. Every click produces a tic. This kind of salesmanship makes Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans seem absolutely honorable by comparison.

Tolerance disclaimer: can great art be created with a rudimentary tool? ABSOLUTELY. Cave dwellers made wheels good enough to move their carts to market well before Sears Craftsman came on the scene. I can make a sort of painting using dried sticks, but somehow I suspect that a supple, tapered brush gives me more fine-tuned control. In the field of combat, I can open someone’s airway with the shaft of a Bic pen (see your favorite M*A*S*H* re-run) but writing instruments are not, typically, the tool of choice in the operating rooms at the Mayo. We don’t use sealing wax to send love letters anymore, we don’t take the family horse on a Sunday jaunt to the county seat, and we don’t eat peas off a knife. Of course we could. But what is our motivation to do so?

The historic arc of photography bends toward technical development, not fallback. As soon as glass plates were developed, their limits implied the need for film. Once film first froze movement, we needed it to do it faster. No sooner had pinhole apertures allowed a picture to be crudely focused than the market cried out for dedicated glass to refine those pictures. And while many were just getting over the novelty of recording events in monochrome, some dreamed of harnessing all the shades in the rainbow.

Tolerance disclaimer #2: the only reason to use a technique or system is if it gives you the pictures you want. Once your dreams exceed the limits of that medium, however, it’s time to seek a better system. Prevailing over the limits of your medium because that’s all there is can be noble. However, there is no artistic triumph in deliberately using bad equipment to take great pictures. Lomo cameras may entice people to begin shooting, then move on once they outgrow the warps, distortions and flares that these toys produce. Thus the trend will at least have given them time to experiment and  master the basics. But for the most part, for me,there are already far too many obstacles to making good pictures to allow the camera itself to be one of them.

Even in the name of cool.

Thoughts?