the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

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‘CUZ I WANNA, THAT’S WHY

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The mysteries of photography reveal themselves equally well in either analog images (like this one) or digital shots.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THERE ARE NO RATIONALLY DEFENSIBLE “REASONS” TO SHOOT FILM. Every technical argument for abandoning digital and re-embracing analog has been answered, and everything that the film experience delivers, in terms of results, can be duplicated or simulated with greater control, speed and economy in the digital domain.

But here’s the fun part: YOU ALSO DO NOT NEED TO JUSTIFY YOUR DESIRE TO SHOOT FILM. Just admit to yourself that it’s an emotional choice or a matter of nostalgic curiosity. Just getting to this point can be very freeing, since you finally can see the flaws in the most commonly “reasoned” claims made about film, including the following ones, taken verbatim from various film fan sites:

Old Cameras Are Fun To Collect  So are stamps, and you don’t have to dust, repair or make additional purchases of supplementary supplies just to own them

Analog Cameras Provide Insight Into How Photos Are Taken  So will any camera ever made. Turns out that the mystic secrets of imaging weren’t somehow rendered unknowable once we started storing pictures on pixels.

Film Photography Forces You To Be More Meticulous  So does placing limits on settings or shooting conditions on any camera you have. Hell, just shooting in manual is like going to grad school. Just slow down, take your gear off auto, and push yourself.

Developing Photos Can Be A Very Satisfying Experience  So can learning to fashion horseshoes or making your own sourdough bread. The unsatisfying part of processing your own shots is measured in costly materials, errors in developing, a messy house (or angry spouse, or both), and the occasional chemical burn.

Film Teaches You A Lot About Light And Color  As will any diligent amount of study with nearly any camera. Again, there is nothing exclusively instructional about the film process. The novelty and unpredictability of it can be charming, but only up to a point.

With Film You Never Know What’s In Store For You  Meanwhile, you do know that you will pay cash money for every rationed shot you take, good or bad, whereas, once you buy a digital camera, you’re basically shooting unlimited images for free.

Film Photography Can Be Turned Into An Artistic Pursuit  As can origami, music, poetry, or even making owl decorations out of jute and driftwood. So?

The Future Of Film Is Uncertain  Film is eventually going away, so you’d better shoot some quick, or else you’ll miss out on what all of your other your cool friends are already enjoying without you, because you’ve probably been whiling away your time going through bins in vinyl record stores.

Bottom line: you only need utter one sentence to explain why you shoot film.

Say it with me:

‘Cuz I wanna, that’s why.

Art needs no argument or alibi, merely desire. So make pictures in your own way, just without all the cute rationales. Because rationales and creativity are a bad mix.


COSTUMED REVEALS

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE SEE-SAW ACT THAT PHOTOGRAPHY PERFORMS between camouflage and revelation is one of the more tantalizing dynamics of the art. That we can both expose and conceal within a single image is what, in my opinion, actually makes a photograph an artistic expression. Originally conceived merely as a device for recording information, mirroring reality if you will, the camera is actually as coy as a strip-tease artist. You must read pictures for both positive and negative information.

Portraits are ways of expressing how we individually see a person, as well as an invitation to others to either identify or distance themselves from that very individual impression. It is not, by its very nature, an historic document. I was reminded of this recently when doing some background research on my favorite painting, Madame X, John Singer Sargent’s portrait of an American ex-patriot who had burst upon the social scene in nineteenth-century Paris. Not only are his preliminary studies of the woman remarkably distinct from each other, but further study shows that portraits of the same woman done by other artists of the period may as well be of five different people. All are accurate. All are true.

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And so with photos. Gone is the pressure of making one official image of a person to mark their time on the planet, a feature of many early portraits where subjects might be photographed but a single time during their entire life. Now we have several hundred cracks at our favorite people over decades, none of them truly definitive or even typical. In my own case, I have photographed the woman shown here, a master teacher on my weekly birdwatching walks, literally dozens of times over the past decade, and each of the images revealing something vastly different about her character, making her now gentle, now stern, now aged, and now utterly ageless. I keep coming back to her because her eighty-plus years serve her like a kaleidoscope, serving up infinite refractions of her upon each new sitting. What I reveal in one frame I will conceal in the next. In one shot I am celebrating her longevity, while in yet another I am lamenting her fragility.

Even without much trying, you are going to take lots of pictures of the people you love over time. Make those multiple “takes” work for you, talk to you, keep you curious. You will learn that the camera costumes even as it reveals, and that those subtle variations, like variations in autumnal shades, will all be alien from each other, and will all, to one degree or another, ring true.


MORE IS LESS IS MORE

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A color master shot that I later converted to mono, an operation which is perfectly suitable in many occasions.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE ARC OF MY EARLY CHILDHOOD PARALLELS ALMOST PERFECTLY the photo world’s universal switch to color, with my earliest images still rendered in living monochrome, and pictures from my teens giving way to the bold hues made possible by cheaper and faster consumer films. That switch meant a profound change in how one could evaluate light and shadow through the viewfinder, because for the first time, even as you saw your subject in color, you could safely assume that your final picture would more or less look the same.

Think about it what a change that was. If your first rolls were shot in mono (as is still the case with some photo students), you actually had to frame in color, even while you trained your brain to “see” in black and white. After some practice, you might be reasonably sure of how the tonal balance of your work might register once it was rendered in shades of gray, but you couldn’t be certain until you had the results in your hand. And while lab manipulation, including processes like dodging and burning, were possible, the universe of “post-production”-oriented photographers was much, much smaller than is the case today, meaning most of us got….what we got.

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The post-processed mono conversion. Would I have made different decisions had I been mastering in black and white?

Things are much easier for monochrome fans today because, not only is it simple to shoot in black & white on purpose on nearly any camera, previews on LCDs and electronic viewfinders (EVFs) allow you to compose in mono as well. EVFs are even more of a revelation for people coming from DSLR or traditional rangefinders, because you are looking at precisely what the sensor is seeing, making for a smaller gap between your conception of the shot and what you actually get. Since moving to a mirrorless camera, I have become quite spoiled by this extra measure of control. Never mind the fact that, in the Stone Age, I had to wait three days for film to be returned from the processor just to learn how many shots I’d botched. Now both the waiting and the botching are distant memories.

And we have a question from audience: why not just shoot in color all the time, and convert shots to mono as needed (see examples, above)? Well, because you have a more pronounced mindfulness about what will work in mono when you preview and plan in mono, just as you have a better record of what happened from keeping a diary during a trip than in trying to reconstruct your memories later. Or such is my experience. The point is that deliberately doing a day’s shoot in black & white can teach you patience, restraint, and how factors other than color can determine the drama or impact of a shot. But photography is all about how many different roads there are to Oz. As long as you eventually get to the Wizard, it’s all good.


THE TURNOVER BLUES

By MICHAEL PERKINS

AT THIS WRITING (May of 2022), APPLE HAS JUST QUIETLY ANNOUNCED the discontinuation of the last model of the iPod, meaning that, twenty years after the sleek MP3 megatoy changed the entire music game, it’s now, officially, an antique. The global pang this news generated, while mostly associated with memories of earbuds and iTunes downloads, should also feel familiar to many photographers.

Shooters are constantly saying goodbye to tech that, for a time, defined our work, only to learn that we can produce even better work with whatever replaced it. Sometimes, as in the case of analog and film media, we can easily mistake a given iteration of that tech with a kind of golden age, as if it were the equipment itself that determined our skill or talent. And while we’re talking about music, I don’t know anyone who has a closet of every tape deck or turntable or tuner they ever owned, while I know plenty of photogeeks who have a shrine of their favorite cameras. And yes, this is a confession.

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A makeshift shrine to Steve Jobs following his passing in 2011. Yeah, obsolescence sucks….

A few weeks ago, a little more than a decade after Steve Jobs himself ran out of tech support (as shown here by one of many makeshift fan shrines left outside of Apple Stores around the world at the time) I said goodbye to what wound up being my last DSLR, a stalwart that made it ten years before its shutter seized up, earning its honored place in Camera Valhalla. I knew the math on the camera’s lifespan, and knew that the time had come to have the doctors “call it”(translation: repairs would be prohibitively expensive for a device that was already obsolete), and yet, I was (and am, to this minute) unable to chuck it out into the darkness where useless trash (which is what it now is ) properly belongs.

To return to the 160g iPod: yes, last night, after reading of its official extinction, I hauled the unit, now frozen and lifeless for well over a year, out of its still-mint factory box and sniffed back a quick tear. I now have the means, through other toys, to enjoy everything it once gave me, plus more, meaning that, as with the dead DSLR, I wouldn’t be using it even if it still worked. Because it’s not about the equipment, which, in both music and photography, is purely a means, a conveyance. Your camera is not your eye, or your heart, or your hand. Don’t mistake the tool for the one who wields it.


LIFE SUPPORT

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I WOULD EMERGE AS UNDISPUTED CHAMP OF ANY DRINKING GAME in which I took a shot for every time in my life that I’ve uttered the words “I love photography”. The same, I’m sure, can be said of so many of you.

But “love” is different than “need”. Some attachments are beyond any willful or voluntary commitment, existing in excess of any voluntary affection. We often love things we don’t need, and just as often need things we don’t love. But in the case of making pictures, even when my love flags, my need goes relentlessly on.

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The times we live in have generated a lot of anxiety and uncertainty, and in such times, the list of things we actually need becomes tighter, more focused. Photography, which is a coordinated act of the eye, hand, and heart, makes even my own most severely edited list of needful things. What it represents to me is beyond price, as it is an attempt to establish order, to, in effect, extract it from the random clutter and noise of life. Such times move my photography well past anything that the world at large finds essential to a realm in which I keep the things I desperately require for survival.

These words sound hyperbolic as I write them, and so I expect that they may strike you as such as well. Or maybe not. Maybe there are many of you for which the crafting of an image is an act of faith, a deliberate attempt to curse the darkness by answering it with something literally made from light. I suspect that, in any art, the artist is seeking a kind of life support. He is not trying to save the world so much as he is trying to save himself.

None of us has any objective way of knowing if the pictures we make will ever have an ameliorative or transformative effect on any other living person. But we do know what we ourselves derive from the process. And right now, that process is helping me put one foot in front of the other. And yet, I would describe myself as calm rather than panicky, clear rather than confused.

After all, I have my camera, and the curiosity required to make it speak for me.


ANYTHING PAST ZERO IS A WIN

By MICHAEL PERKINS

HERE, AT BREAKNECK SPEED AND WITHOUT SHAME, COMES A SUPREME PHOTOGRAPHY CLICHE.

Brace yourselves.

“You always miss 100% of the shots that you don’t take.” (Scattered, half-sincere applause. Several moans.)

Okay, maybe they were talking about basketball. Or people taking pictures of basketball. Beyond the tired corniness of the sentence, however, lingers an unassailable fact: if you don’t try to get the picture, you won’t get the picture. Every time you pre-censor yourself by saying, “ah, the light’s not right” or “I didn’t bring the right lens” or “I don’t push shutter buttons when the moon is in Virgo”, you’ve definitely shielded yourself from failure. But you’ve also guaranteed that you’ll come home empty-handed. In effect, in the interest of getting something wrong, you’ve ensured that you may nail something marvelous, regardless of your misgivings.

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All of which seems antithetical to making any photograph, let along a good one. True, your chances of success in less-than-ideal conditions are diminished, but you’ve probably already had the experience of harvesting a miracle in spite of…..in spite of the garbage light, in spite of the hurried conditions, in spite of the fact that you needed to hurry-erase several frames off your memory card to even try the shot…in spite of….

I was reminded of all this yesterday when I almost didn’t try for this fat little bullfrog. He was about twenty-five feet away, and I had come out with a 56mm prime lens with no zoom. There was also the risk of spooking him and getting a great image, of, well, pond water. But I was on a full-frame sensor body, shooting at the highest resolution and the biggest file possible, so I thought, why not? I can crop the thing later and there will probably still be enough resolution to save the day. The entire decision took about fifteen seconds, and, as you can see, even though the pic is not going to get me on National Geographic’s Christmas card list, it was worth the trip. The entire point here is to get you out of the habit of talking yourself out of trying a shot before the fact. After all, there’s plenty of time to hate on a picture after you’ve taken it (which is more fun for others, as well) and, in terms of a winning percentage, anything past zero is a win.


TRACE OR NO TRACE?

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How do you like your pizza photo? With a guy…?

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHING PEOPLE IN THEIR NATIVE SETTINGS, that is, making pictures of what they do in order to explain what they do, is the essence of street work. We are fascinated by people being “caught in the act of being themselves” (as the intro to the old show Candid Camera used to state), and we get a ton of context on all the stuff we’re seeing in a frame when we see where human activity fits into it all. I get it.

And yet, I still find myself evaluating the impact of an image with a sort of “trace or no trace” choice. Do the people in the picture explain it, actually anchor it, or am I (we) merely in the habit of sticking them there, like punctuation in a sentence? Can we comprehend what the photograph is about, and what part humans had in its meaning, without the actual presence of said people?

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..or without?

The pair of shots you see here, taken seconds apart in a funky urban pizzeria, are the latest pair to present me with this conundrum. Certainly the cook in the top image conveys scale to the surrounding oven and fixtures. For example, with him in the frame, it’s easy to convey the size of the interior space, i.e., it’s pretty compact. He also “looks the part” in that he looks like he fits in a pizzeria, that is, he’s well cast in his part.

But look at the second image, which was taken after he ducked briefly into the kitchen. You get many of the same cues and clues. You get atmosphere from the distressed brick in both the walls and the oven. Indeed, without the chef to distract you, you might actually linger longer over the details in the oven itself, which unmistakably screams pizza. I suppose the reason I dither with this dilemma is the fact that I’ve often been forced to suggest the presence of people in various still lifes and architectural compositions, either because they’re not part of, say, a museum exhibit, or because they are dead or absent for more mortal reasons, leaving me with only their leavings from which to tell a story.

Even if we (or you) can’t come up with a consistent rule, the point is that not all people make a photographic story richer. Sometimes they are mere pieces of furniture, props if you will, added for balance. You alone must decide whether they’re a necessity or mere window dressing.


HUE MONGOUS

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE PHOTOGRAPHIC COMMANDMENT TO ALWAYS SHOOT IN BRIGHT LIGHT MAY NOT BE THE IRONCLAD RULE IT ONCE WAS (such are the advances of technology), but many generations were taught the habit as a “Photo 101” default. Especially back in the days of slower film emulsions, we were always told that brighter is better, with the more detailed how-to manuals explaining how to compensate for cloudy or overcast days. One of the reasons this “well, duh” rule made sense is how sunlight affects color.

As a consequence, light is always best regarded as a temporary, precious thing. There is only so much of it, and you’d better shoot while the shooting is good, and so forth. But just as temporary as the ways light shape color is how the changing state of things themselves can influence it. Like light itself, the condition of your subject will dictate what kind of color can be captured from it.

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Take as an example the unfinished high-rise building seen here. The intensity of the sunlight affording us the ability to look clear through the empty structure, from one side to the other, is but one consideration in making this picture. Also to be factored in is how the lack of internal decor and furnishing will flavor the primarily bluish translucency of the tower. The exact same building shot three months later, in exactly the same light, but filled with desks and wall hangings, flesh tones, and a symphony of new shadows, will produce vastly different results, simply because the color relationships that the light illuminates in this shot will have been altered.

So, in addition to how much light we need, and what type of light we prefer it to be, we have to evaluate the things we are shooting and how their constituent colors play upon each other. With some subjects, a great seasonal or temporal shift will occur if we wait minutes, days, or months to make our attempts. Which goes back to the inherent complexity of making photographs, recognizing that there is no single way to “capture” or “fix” a thing in time. Whose time? Which reality? Which version of the truth?


CRY FREEDOM

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IT OCCURRED TO ME, RECENTLY, TO LIST SOME OF THE WORKS OF ART that have imparted the greatest sense of peace to me, and to take note of how many of them were first conceived in a spirit of resistance or struggle.

A few come to mind at once: the stirring finale of Tchaikovsky’s 1812: the stirring images of Dust Bowl Americans striving to emerge from devastation and despair: nearly every page of every Dickens novel. Many of the things we recognize as artistically eternal or universal were originally created as protests, as deliberate acts of soulful sabotage against the prevailing darkness. Any act of art, including a photograph, can begin as a raised fist against something unthinkable, but the photograph itself can defy the odds in a different way: by being a defiant declaration of joy.

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Journalistic images certainly play a key role in combating fear and ignorance, shining a light where some prefer it not be shone. But the very act of art is, itself, a protest….against the view that life is worthless, against the seductive pull of despair. Art is the affirmation of life, the insistence that it continue, even thrive. Like the flower peeping through the wire seen in this image, we aspire…we arc ourselves toward whatever light there is. And so, it’s easy to make a list of pictures that have gone beyond mere reportage to become celebrations of the things in the world that are still elegant, beautiful, and soul-sustaining.

There are days, like those of the present age (and countless ages before this), when it seems that night will never end, and, for those days, art that cries freedom, that re-certifies the best of us, is surely a revolutionary act. It’s more than merely “cheering up”, and it’s certainly not a turning away from “reality”. It is, instead, a refusal to go quietly, an act of resistance that says that hope is not only possible, but the only perpetually blooming human instinct that can bore through the stone of silence, the barriers of hate.

Photographs are part of this refusal to lie down and die, a tool that the artist can use to stoop down into the rubble and resurrect something that will outlast the night. In measuring light inside our magic boxes, we preserve it, sanctify it, and, in so doing, all of us, one image at a time, begin to save the world entire.


STUMBLING ONTO SECRETS

By MICHAEL PERKINS

REGARDLESS OF WHETHER YOU CONSIDER YOUR PHOTOGRAPHY TO BE JOURNALISTIC BY NATURE, you will, over the course of your shooting life, have the visual evidence of other people’s stories dumped into your lap. In most cases, it’s the physical aftermath of some human event that you are arriving at after the fact. Leave-behinds from a mystery. Who left this here? What happened here? Who made this, and why?

Photogs regularly stumble onto other people’s secrets, or at least the litter of secrets. People abruptly break camp and move on from the site of their strangest whims, leaving clues that may or may not make their original intentions clear. And since we take just as many images of the things we don’t understand as those we think that we do, we snap away at the strange archaeological digs people abandon when they go on to the next thing in their lives. The fact that we don’t comprehend just what it is that they left behind doesn’t make the pictures any less compelling. In fact, quite the contrary.

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This office chair was discovered just where you see it, under the golden canopy of a single enormous palo verde tree in full spring blossom. The shady seclusion of the scene seems to indicate a desire to shelter, to escape, to carve out a quiet spot of contemplation. And while that may indeed be the case, the whole thing invites a lot of other questions. Why this chair? Was it the person’s favorite, or, conversely, a perch so hated that dragging it here was the next best thing to lugging it to the town dump or pouring lighter fluid on it? What was motivating enough to transfer a chair from the nearest office suite (about a tenth of a mile away) and finding a place where it could be left with no fear of discovery? Was the site scouted, or merely happened upon? How many times did the person come to sit in the chair, and why and for how long? Was it the object of reward (in an hour I’ll be able to escape to the chair) or some kind of desperate relief (if I don’t get away from these people, I’m going to just lose it..)?

One picture conjures all of this, and more, additional plot lines which I’m sure even the casual viewer can supply without much effort. That’s the beauty of even the untold stories captured in photographs. They tell us enough to keep the seeker coming back for more. We think, as photographers, that we want to reveal everything, but, in reality, many of our most treasured images are of other people’s secrets, unrevealed, and, hence, irresistible.


PUTTING THE “O” IN ORACLE

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By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHY IS NOT A PLACE TO ESCAPE THE FEELINGS OF UNCERTAINTY THAT COLOR nearly every human endeavor. If you’re looking for a sure thing, you’d best not ever pick up a camera. Like ever.

In a tsunami of tech-talk designed to assure and soothe the anxious snapper, perhaps we can only move forward by going back, in a return to the only universally recognized authority on how to conduct the affairs of man with clarity and surety.

I’m suggesting that we all dig into our toy chests and begin, once again, to trust the Magic 8-Ball.

Hey, if it was good enough to pronounce on whether that cute boy in Math likes you, or whether you’ll win a million dollars, it should be wise enough to help you make better pictures. Some of the Ball’s responses even seem to be custom-made for the modern photographic age.

Will my last good battery die just before the bride and groom cut the cake?

You may rely on it

Is this on-line equipment reviewer on the level, or is he just a corporate shill who gets his gear for free?

Better not tell you now

Will my new, cutting-edge have any manufacturer support from the manufacturer beyond, say, my next birthday?

Outlook not so good

Even in 2022, can I still manage to forget to remove my lens cap?

It is decidedly so

Will this editing software help me rescue my crappiest pictures?

Very doubtful

Should I perhaps share just one of the thirty-five frames I shot of my adorable cat in a Batwoman costume?

It is certain

Will more than one shot on a twenty-four exposure role of film from my plastic toy camera not make me cringe?

My sources say no

And, finally, should I just sell all my cameras and learn to paint? By the numbers, maybe?

Reply hazy, try again 

Maybe trying to remove the risk from photography is the wrong approach (spoiler alert: it is). Maybe the uncertainty is not only the point, but the entire thrill. Perhaps pulling something organized and intentional out of randomness is why we do it in the first place. As to our chances for occasionally beating the odds and freezing something wonderful inside a box, the ball has the last word: outlook good. 


THE STREET GIVETH…

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IT’S BEEN CALLED SPYING, PRYING, PREDATION, and, occasionally “art”….the strange cross between eavesdropping and journalism that is collectively known as “street” photography. The elements of it that reveal something universal or profound about the human condition are hailed with exhibitions and awards, while the worst of it is considered rude, intrusive, even cruel. For those of us who only want our picture taken when we give specific permission, or when we are “ready”, street work can feel like theft, that is, something that is stolen from us. Then again, it also, sometimes, nails the truth about someone else’s vulnerabilities or foibles, and that, miraculously, we seem to be able to live with.

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In a world in which billions of images are snapped globally each day, and in which most shutters are absolutely silent, and flash is on the endangered species list, it seems as if we have long since passed the point of no return in terms of privacy. We emotionally demand it even though we have no logical right to expect it. Every day there are more and more places where cameras can not only intrude, but intrude with laser precision, and we must reluctantly admit that, effectively, we are all under surveillance, always.

We have almost unlimited access to everyone’s quiet inner moments, at least the ones they play out in public. Does everyone deserve to have every part of their life laid bare, and who is to decide? If you come upon a private moment, such as the one seen above, does slicing off a sample of it for public use cheapen that moment? Or does it in some way celebrate it as emblematic of something essential about being human, something we all recognize, even share?

I shake up all these arguments on a day-by-day and frame-by-frame basis, and I don’t always come up with a coherent answer. The street giveth and the street taketh away, and photographers pluck their harvest from it like an army of insatiable fruit pickers. Are we bad? Are we wrong? Can anyone say for sure?


LOSING FOCUS

By MICHAEL PERKINS

WITH THIS GENERATION’S NEARLY UNIVERSAL EMBRACE OF CONSUMER-FRIENDLY EDITING SUITES LIKE PHOTOSHOP has come a new vocabulary to describe the new freedoms made possible by their use. Terms like painterly, dreamy, and atmospheric signal the reemergence of a far more interpretive kind of photography that has finally broken the long reign of the Cult Of Sharpness that valued crispness and “realism” above all other considerations in picture-making for nearly a century.

The idea, espoused by Ansel Adams and other from the photo group f/64 (a name that refers to what was then supposedly the sharpest f-stop possible), was that only a keen, precise measurement of light and tone could be regarded as “straight” photography and that all other more impressionistic renderings were somehow less authentic. This idea was itself a severe reaction to an even earlier school of photography called Pictorialism, which favored the tweaking of processing and printing tech to manipulate mood in much the same way that painters had always done. Some shooters like Adams regarded P-word pictures as the dead opposite of photography, as a non-scientific surrender to the painting tradition. Ansel, never the mealy-mouthed observer, once even went so far as to refer to Pictorialist William Mortensen as “the anti-Christ.” And so, as a consequence of the f/64 coven’s influence, the historical door on the dreamier side of photography was officially slammed shut and the word went out for decades afterward, to both pro and amateur alike that Sharpness is King.

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City Of Ambition, a Pictorialist photogravure by Alfred Stieglitz (1910)

Pictorialists’ images, like the NYC scene from Alfred Stieglitz seen here, were created by odd mixes of cross-mixed chemicals, the etching of pictures on printing plates, deliberate degradation of negatives, and dozens of other interventions done after the shutter click to deepen contrast, soften hard edges, and widen the range of tones for dramatic effect. Think of it as analog beta-testing for the tricks we now do with a few mere mouse clicks. Several generations of tech later, the sheer number of editing choices in the present day has led to a strong reassertion of soft or selective focus, of textures and tones that go beyond the real world in amazing and exciting ways. It’s led even those who still shoot film, like the toy camera devotees of Lomography, to re-evaluate what focus and sharpness are in a picture are actually for, and when to attenuate or even turn them off completely. It’s also led to the success of companies like Lensbaby, who sell all-manual lenses to digital shooters who want an interpretive tool, rather than a scientific instrument, to help them make images.

And so everything old is new again. Indeed, photography may have finally entered a phase in which “eras” and “trends” are just words, a time in which all times (and schools of thought) are equal. Here’s to the opportunity that that implies, and to an art that is just beginning, in its third century, to spread its new butterfly wings.


MAYBE A CIGAR, ANYWAY

By MICHAEL PERKINS

A FACE ONLY A MOTHER COULD LOVE. That’s the standard cliche in describing someone so unlovable that he or she has, at best, a devoted audience of maybe one. The saying used to apply solely to physical beauty, but can, these days, define anyone or anything that is just this side of universally loathsome. Substitute the word picture for face and photographer for mother, and you’ve summed up what some of us feel for our rejected images, the ones we bitterly hate and desperately love at the same time.

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The image see here is one of my own top five red-headed stepchildren, a picture that is so close to being exactly what I wanted of it, yet so technically flawed that any person of taste or perception would immediately consign it to the rubbish bin, and with good reason. And yet, year after year, doing my annual “rehab tour” of pictures that I somehow can’t permanently destroy, it pops up, begging for love or at least a little maternal forbearance. My attitude is not so much close, but no cigar as much as can I have just one hit off of YOUR cigar? For effort?

The shot was taken in the circular rotunda that acts as the initial vestibule of entry to Griffith Observatory, which sits like a gleaming Art Deco Sci-Fi castle atop a promontory that overlooks downtown Los Angeles. The Keck rotunda’s walls are rich with murals that celebrate the great celestial and scientific discoveries of the ages, and the Foucault pendulum, seen here as the recessed circle that several patrons are starting into, bathes faces in a warm uplight that makes them look like glowing participants in a Maxxfield Parrish painting. In this snap (and it was a “snap”, with no more planning or intention than the word implies) the random poses of the crowd, including the young woman doing an “oh, wow” as she enters through a door, look impossibly staged, something that endears it to me years later.

But, then there’s that total blowout of high blue and white light from the parking lot, taken in an attempt to capture the entrance’s unique metal grillework. I mean, the entire effect of the picture screams “preliminary sketch”, only I didn’t go back and do the technical work that would have corrected the contrast, color rendition or overall exposure. Never has so much raw material been presented with so little in the way of decent execution.

And therein lies the face “only a mother could love”. Like any mom, we love in spite of what our kids actually are, in spite of what they actually achieved. And we weep a little about what might have been, of what little more effort it might have taken to actually win the cigar.


WORTH A THOUSAND PICTURES

By MICHAEL PERKINS

A LITTLE RESEARCH REVEALS THAT THE MOST POPULAR NAME FOR ALL OF THE PHOTOGRAPHS ever published over two hundred-some years’ time is, simply, “untitled”. This used to strike me, in my younger days, as laziness or dullness on the part of the photographer, but now I often see it as the perhaps the best approach. A picture may, indeed, be worth a thousand words, but it only takes a handful of those words to diminish an image’s effect.

Adding a title or caption to a photo can actually bruise its power. Titling anchors an image by telling the viewer what it is supposed to be (or not be), a function that should fall to the image alone. Giving a picture a simple name, like Niagara Falls Vacation, 1969 is an act of cataloguing, but any ability the photograph has to be universal or timeless is hemmed in by whatever words accompany it, so that even a basic title can have an unintended effect.

And then there are the acts of people other than the original photographer, an editor for example, who may arbitrarily assign context or “meaning” to an image by labeling it later. This has obviously resulted in real mischief by those who want to appropriate a photo to bolster their own messages, a practice which could lead to its impact being prostituted or used for any variety of nefarious aims.

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Absent a caption, a photograph is forced to speak for itself. As an exercise: in the above image, is the child tired, discouraged, frightened, jealous, in pain, at risk, even joyful or grateful? If I reveal the rather ordinary truth about the image, that it was taken of a boy who was disappointed at not being able to remain longer in a zoo’s gift shoppe, that short-circuits any other meaning that the viewer might want to bring to it. It stunts its impact.

And, yes, it might be too cute by half if I craft some playfully obscure name for the picture (as I tend to) or just number it, or even call it “untitled”, but that, at least, puts the viewer back into a kind of exchange with the author about what the picture could be by supplying that information himself. Images are powerful things. However, in trying to catalogue or explain them, we can greatly reduce that power, even neutralize it. Letting pictures speak for themselves….well, it’s why we make them in the first place, isn’t it?


FROM DAMN TO DARN

By MICHAEL PERKINS

OVER THE MANY YEARS THAT I HAVE BEEN SHOOTING PRIMARILY ON FULL MANUAL, there have been plenty of chances for me to embarrass myself utterly by mis-reading various settings on the fly. I stay with manual mostly out of the comfort that many decades of doing it afford me, and partly because even semi-or-fully-automatic shooting modes can occasionally stab me in the back anyway. That said, every once in a while, I totally mis-read the road and wind up with an exposure like this:

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Lemme ‘splain, Lucy: I was in a hurry to get the man in the lower left corner before he could cross further right. I wanted him to appear small against the immense white wall that was both a literal and symbolic barrier cutting him off from parts of the street and cutting us off from the rest of the available view. Unfortunately, just a few seconds prior, I had shot something much darker and left the settings the same, meaning that a white wall became a By-God-We’re-Not-Playing-Around-Here-Freaking-WHIIIIIITE-WALLLLLLLL. This is what photographers and race car drivers alike call A Blowout.

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Then, since I had already obliterated a lot of detail and contrast with the master shot, I wondered if I should just go whole hog and remove more of both, including desaturating everything except the man’s skin tones and part of a traffic sign. In other words, start with a flawed picture and then exaggerate the flaws until it looks, you know, intentional. Did I succeed? Depends on when you ask me.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all about saving face when I blow a picture, and I’m certainly not above applying a few tweaks to make my flub look like a win. But here I think I’m just telling myself what I want to hear. This isn’t an avant-garde or edgy commentary on our times. It’s just a blown picture. But at least I can tell myself (and you, dear reader) that I can still tell the difference.


KEEPIN’ IT (FROM BEING) REAL

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ONE OF THE KEYS TO UNDERSTANDING WHERE PHOTOGRAPHY IS lies in studying where it started from. If you place the camera amongst the other technical marvels of the nineteenth century, from trains to telegraphs to telephones to electrification, you see a steady stream of mechanical/scientific means of quantifying or measuring things, with the Magic Box That Imprisons Light being seen as one more device to help us master or harness nature. This got the invention off on a certain foot, in an origin story that we still struggle with.

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We got used to thinking of photographs as recordings of reality. We wuz wrong. 

Unlike painting, which was natively seen as an emotional / interpretative means of commenting on the world, the camera began life being regarded as a scientific instrument. An official recorder of reality…its dimensions, its contrasts, its events. The real record. But since, from the very beginning, one could manipulate the results, whether with recording medium (glass plates, film, etc.), exposure, processing, and so forth, each photographer had it within his power to also apply his/her own idea of what “the truth” was. Fakery appeared early on, and of course, both the choice to go with the default tonal palette of monochrome or the whim to deliberately engineer one’s one tonal schema (hand coloring, for example). This meant that, from the start, reality was not a final destination for photographs. It was a point of departure. 

That’s why I don’t understand the backhanded compliment that something/anything is appealing because it “looks like a photograph”. My reflexive answer is, “whose photograph?” Walker Evans? Many Ray? Annie Liebovitz? Granny at the birthday party? Photographers may use “reality” as raw material, but none of the best of them, to my taste, are satisfied with reality as a final message. The image seen here, for example, is the product of manipulation, and, if I’m lucky, that fiddling will seem logical, or invisible, or, if I’m really careful, inevitable, as if my result could not be any other way. But real? God, don’t anchor me, or photography with the anvil of mere reality. The world as it is will never be as fascinating to artists as the world that might have been, or may yet be.


2-FERS

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ONE OF MY PROUDEST ACHIEVEMENTS AS A PHOTOGRAPHER has little to do with the power or technical precision of this image or that, but rather in any success I may experience in trying, over time, to do more with less. Fewer procedural steps per shot. Fewer cameras per piece of baggage. And, mounted on said cameras, fewer lenses to do nearly everything, or as close to that holy state that I can get.

It’s not just a case of lessening the strain on my aching back/neck, although that is a helluva motivator. No, it’s more about the time lost switching between cameras, camera bodies, lenses, attachments, etc., which must inevitably lead to lost shots. Or at least that’s what I tell myself. If only I hadn’t been fiddling for that other optic, I tearfully whine, I’d already have produced a masterpiece today, or some other such delusion. There is also the cold, hard fact of my own innate sloth. I’d like to have my hands freer for more of the time, especially if someone might be inclined to proffer a ham sandwich or, Lord bless me, an I.P.A.

That said, I now choose lenses based on the breadth of their traits, glass that I can just stick on a single camera with a reasonable expectation of being able to get 90% of what I want simply because the lens is not a one-trick pony. For example, that might mean, say, looking for a prime lens that has a wide aperture range, allowing me to do portraits, landscapes, and even a few handheld night shots all with one set-up. In my younger days, I thought nothing of doing this by taking three separate lenses along, all of them delivering just one specialized effect. Homey don’t play that no more.

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This “faux macro” was actually shot with a zoom lens from about twenty feet away. 

As an example: I am often on birdwatching walks with my friends for which someone forgot to memo the birds to, you know, actually show up. That used to mean being stuck all day with just “the bird camera”, a fairly adequate bridge model with decent zoom, but a small sensor that makes it lousy on scenic work. In recent years, I have repurposed the thing as a faux macro lens, merely by zooming in, not on distant mountains or eagles on trees, but flowers, insects, and other mini-subjects, mostly from a distance of about twenty feet. It takes a little getting used to, framing up a shot of something that tiny from that far away, but, on mornings that the birds have decided to sleep in, I can at least find something to do to avoid moaning and pouting, two behaviours that birders specifically frown upon.

The other thing I do to isolate things even further is to zoom in at the shortest focal length that the lens will allow and under-expose by about a stop and a half. If I can’t de-emphasize the background with bokeh, then I’ll just surround my subject with inky black. Either way, instead of spending the day grousing that I don’t have the correct tool, I’ve become more comfortable with asking what I do have to work a little counter-intuitively. Because, after all, excusing oneself for not getting the picture “because I brought the wrong gear” is, well, for the birds.


LIFE LEAKS

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE CAMERA IS THE MOST INTRUSIVE INVENTION EVER UNLEASHED ON THE WORLD, and the world has been altered forever by its peering, prying eye. That is both a negative and positive statement.

It has to be, since the fruits of photography are, on a good day, a mixed blessing. This unique bit of Industrial-Age machinery has, over several centuries now, investigated, invaded, illuminated and violated all of us. We simultaneously embrace this phenomenon and recoil from it. We hope its all-seeing orb won’t expose our particular secrets, but we cannot look away when it probes the dark truths of others.

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Like many, I shoot through open windows as I walk through neighborhoods. I record what I tend to call “life leaks”. I maintain what I tell myself is a respectful distance, working hard not to capture anything starkly intimate about the lives that are concealed within houses, apartments, shops. I am only after shards, suggestions. Hints at the real wonders within. After all, it’s not, strictly speaking, my business, is it? Or might it be?

The camera, at any given time, is engaged in several ongoing chronicles of horrors and triumphs of the human condition in various global “hot spots”. It has ever been thus. We look in on people’s daily toils, invited or not. We are peepers. This is not always a good thing, nor is it always a bad thing. Sometimes, as in the image shown here, our curiosity about how people live is rather benign. Look at the way the light plays inside that house. Oh, what’s that picture on the wall? What’s around that corner, I wonder? Other times, our curiosity is reportorial, even prurient. What happened to this building? Is there anyone left alive inside? Who did this? It’s a short walk from childlike wonder to journalistic horror shows. I wonder where the line is.

I wonder if there even is a line.

Since the invention of the camera, we are all witnesses. And we are all subject matter.

I worry about walking a tightrope between wanting to know and demanding to know, and how we can all stay aloft on that rope. I don’t have a one-size-fits-all answer. We, every one of us, has to make that call one image at a time.


INVISIBLE BUT NOT UNSEEN

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Carousels are wonderful, but can fall, pictorially, into the “done to death” category

By MICHAEL PERKINS

CENTURIES AGO, WHEN THE ROMAN WRITER PUBLILIUS COINED THE PHRASE “Familiarity breeds contempt” he was speaking about how human relations go sour based on an overdose of closeness or a lack of variety. But he also unwittingly described the challenge of photographing an exhaustively recognizable subject. The more a thing has been shot, the more we feel challenged to say something fresh about it, and the more we grow disgusted with how utterly, ugh, familiar it is.

I have been shooting carousels my entire life, with a wiiiiiiide variance in result. Most of my attempts just fall into the technically-challenged category: blurs, underexposures, tilted horizons, lousy compositions, etc. Others are okay, specs-wise, but ho-hum in effect. I keep trying to make pictures that export the grand visual ballet of romance that I carry in my brain, a rich, gauzy collective memory dipped in gaudy colour and memory. The problem, of course, is that what comes out of the camera is…just another picture of a carousel.

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The housings and surrounds for classic carousels add context and a little more mystery. 

Recently I realized that the carousel itself is part of the problem, since it contains too much information that, through millions of attempts, we all have taken for granted. Nothing new can be suggested by just continuing to click away at the thing, while, if one backs off a bit, nearly backing the thing out of the frame entirely to show more of its surrounding context, something fresher may actually emerge.

As seen above, the carousel inside the 1916 Looff Hippodrome building on the Santa Monica pier in California, the very rig that Paul Newman’s character in The Sting used to entertain his bevy of, ahem, tarts, is beautiful not only in its own right, but for the immense octagonal wooden barn that houses it…so much so that shooting an image that primarily highlights the structure with just a hint of racing horses (seen directly above) at least lets a little fresh air into the process. The barn’s high arched windows look directly out to the Pacific and bathe the interior with warm, comforting light, which also softens the deeper hues of the ride itself. I shot about a dozen conventional lights-and-horses frames, but once I got home I found I liked this better. Sometimes when something has been talked to death in pictures, it’s at least a relief to change the conversation a bit, if only by pivoting ninety degrees.