By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE RESTORATION OF HISTORICALLY IMPORTANT HOMES is an imprecise art. The challenges range from structures that are essentially unchanged since their original use, with all effects and furnishings intact, to buildings whose shells have been salvaged but which have lost all their historically correct detail. In the latter case, those returning the homes to daily use by the public must stage the places with period-correct props, trying to augment a narrative that an empty edifice along could not provide. They act in the same way as set directors on a movie shoot, filling in gaps to, in effect, supplement a big story with a lot of little ones.
Thing is, sometimes not only the devil, but the real interest, is in such details, as with this drafting set I encountered during a recent tour of a grand old summer home built by a millionaire in the Arizona desert of the 1920’s. Nearly every original accent in the house has been artificially placed to suggest real living space, even though its first owners sold the home soon after building it. One nice little tableau in a front-facing room features a copy of the original house blueprint, laid out on a table as if its creator were still poring over it, flanked by a lovely leather-bound kit from the long-forgotten Eugene Dietzgen Company, once one of the country’s premier maker of drafting tools. And therein lies a real tale.
Travelling (and drawing) in some very important circles.
Eugene, born in Germany in 1862, was soon moved by his father to Tsarist Russia, where Papa promptly got himself in hot water for distributing socialist literature critical of the reigning government. In 1881, Joseph Dietzgen sent his son to live in America, both to evade the local military draft and to spirit away some of the writings that had already landed the old man in prison on occasion. Arriving in New York at the age of 19, Eugene Dietzgen began working for a German drafting company, and soon moved to Chicago, where he formed his own tool-making firm in 1881. Applying his father’s progressive ideas in the new world, Eugene provided such exotic amenities for his employees as individual bathrooms for men and women (!) and open window sills inside the factory decorated with flowers. He also continued to promote the writings of his father, a philosopher who counted no less than Karl Marx among his fans. Early in the 20th century, the Dietzgen company soared to the top of its field with a very popularly priced slide rule, and slid into history as the Dietzgen Corporation, which exists to this day.
So, since it wasn’t the property of this historic house’s original designer, how did this elegant kit find its way to the Arizona desert? That’s the fun of diverting one’s attention from the intended purpose of placing the object on this particular table, and using the camera to celebrate the story within the story. This object was someone’s go-to for precision work. How? As a gift? An aspirational investment in a future career? An impulse purchase? As is often the case with a photograph, the picture is a two-way door: things are concealed and revealed, all in the same instant.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
OVER THE PAST TWO CENTURIES, MUCH OF PHOTO MANIPULATION has been akin to a magic trick, in that the creator wants to call attention to the effect rather than the technique. Indeed, photographic fakery is most often the art of not getting caught when distorting or reinventing reality. In the age of Photoshop, it has become tougher to detect where the wires are, even though more of us than ever are indulging in a little polite puppeteering. However, any historic discussion of altered images must include a man who did everything he could to let his audience in on the joke.
Advertising savant George Lois, who died in 2022 at the age of 92, saw his career peak during photography’s first true ascendancy in both marketing and advocacy. Beginning in the 1950’s, the technology for reliably printing color images coincided with the dominance of national news and art magazines,. The trend made Lois, one of the first of what are now called graphic designers, to become a superstar in his own right, developing an uncanny ability to snare eyeballs and change the cultural conversation, all the while decidedly ringing the cash register for his clients. In his snarky, satirical use of photographs in both ads and mag covers, he created national crazes and hip cocktail conversation by composing patently fake pictures with a wink to the audience that seemed to say, you know I’m doing this. These things never happened. We’re just seeing what it would look like if they had….
In nearly a hundred covers for Esquire magazine in the 1960’s, George Lois seized upon the hippest and most pivotal figures of the culture and counterculture, from Mohammed Ali to LBJ to McCarthy-era hitman Roy Cohn to Woody Allen, generating imaginative mashups of their actual images with impossible staging for editorial effect. For his Esquire covers, he cranked out fever dreams like Andy Warhol being sucked into a whirlpool inside a Campbell’s soup can (top), and Richard Nixon (whose presidential defeat in 1960 had been partly attributed to his on-camera appearance) sitting in a make-up chair getting ready for his big comeback (above). Lois, the man who had shaped campaigns for everyone from Xerox to Aunt Jemima to USA Today, and who would eventually have the world chanting, “I Want My MTV!”, delivered everything to his customers wrapped in a wry confession: Hey, we’re just selling stuff here. YOU get it, right? Instead of soap powder or toothpaste, Lois’ “product” was the editorial content inside the magazine. It seems insanely obvious now, but then, it was a revelation.
As a man who oversaw everything from concept to completion, Lois hated portrayals of his business like the Scotch-and-cigarette playboy Don Draper and all of his ilk on the Mad Men series, which made ad execs look like the driving force of the agencies instead of those who “worked full, exhausting, joyous days: pitching new business, creating ideas, “comping” them up, storyboarding them, selling them, photographing them, and directing commercials.” Years ahead of the digital revolution that now make fakery easy to conceal, Lois and his cohorts (capitalist hucksters all) showed us that the rabbit was not actually in the hat but tucked inside the table. In some very entertaining ways, he was more honest, in his swindling than many of his successors.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I SPENT A SIGNIFICANT STRETCH OF MY CHILDHOOD LOST. Not being lost, adrift in the existential Neverland that I often inhabit as an oldster, but getting lost, willfully banishing myself to places where I could be utterly, magnificently alone, unmoored from the constraints of community and kind. Days that began with my mother asking “where are you going?” and me automatically answering, “nowhere” are among my most marvelous memories. The fact that “nowhere” was a destination and not merely uncertainty made a difference. I respect the miraculous meaningless of not having to report to someplace, somebody, or something. It’s as close to peace as anything I’m likely to experience.
And, just as I sought for years to be going Nowhere, I cherish the opportunity to, when needed, spend the day taking pictures of Nothing.
What kind of nothing? Well, perhaps I mean anything, as in anything that comes to hand. And, along with that unplanned plan, images of people who celebrate, as I do, the value of just being, not bound anywhere, not belonging to anything, just…being. This makes me a sucker for an image like the one seen here. The original master frame was taller, and showed that, in reality, our relaxed friend was far from alone. And yet, within his immediate space (and certainly in his mind) he was as solitary as it gets, and so I cropped the shot to reflect that. Big shots often contain enough visual information for several pictures. This was one of those cases. Our Man In Red clearly had no need of the extraneous people in the scene, as he had already bought his express ticket for Nowhere. So that’s the way the photo feels now.
Of course, when you quit the society of people, you have the potential to get re-connected with Nature at large, and, in a world in which we are generally estranged from much of our environment, that in itself has become a trippy experience. We remember how to move through the woods but have forgotten how to let the woods move through us. And so, when I am shooting Nothing, I get a real ping of kinship when I behold someone who is busy being Nowhere. Because, in both photography and life, Nothing can often be Everything.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF IT’S JANUARY (as it is at this writing, the head end of 2023), then it’s time for rifling through endless old image files for two diametrically opposed searches: one for the pictures that I hastily conferred “keeper” status on, and the other for photographs that took a bit of time to win me over. In the case of the former, many a shot that initially seemed to be a hit reveals itself as a mishap of magical thinking, or of me wanting to believe that the pictures were better than they were. This comes from mistaking good intentions for actual achievement. In the latter case, I have done just the opposite, skirting over something that didn’t hit me in the gut at first glance but now strikes me as slightly more than passable. The first search is good for humility. The second is an exercise in joy.
In reviewing the pictures that were once faves but now seem “meh” to me, I find myself searching for answers to the question, “what was I thinking?”, each answer invaluable if I have the guts to face reality. In looking at the re-discovered gems, I struggle to define the common thread that courses through all of anyone’s pictures that really, really connect with me. A few key findings emerge:
First, only a handful of them were taken with amazing, or even decent cameras. Bad tools can make picture-making trickier, but even if you’re holding a non-responsive brick in your hands, love will find a way. Secondly, even when taken on decent equipment, a surprising number of the neo-keepers are quite technically imperfect. In fact, more than a few violate even basic rules of composition, exposure, and so on. Still other newly-adored pix were shots were the product of very fast decisions: that is, if they were planned at all, they are short on reaction time and long on raw instinct. In the case of the image shown above, for example,all three of the things that I have listed as compromising factors are in evidence. The picture was taken during an aggravating day on which one of my oldest DSLRs was actively dying on me, its exhausted shutter freezing on every other frame: it is not particularly sharp, and in fact contains a few radical blowouts (some of whom have been mercifully cropped): and, finally, I had about three seconds from “maybe this would work” to “a passing car has now obliterated half the scene”. I did not literally shoot this from my hip, but I might as well have.
Strangely, the final image appeals to me more than a few others taken before and after it, pictures where the camera was, you know, actually working. I shuffled past it with a grunt upon first viewing, and yet, over a year later, I see something in it that I wish I could do more purposefully at some other time. Maybe our self-grading on the curve is like the charitable comments many a teacher has scrawled on a kid’s mediocre report card: “shows potential”. Some days, viewing one’s work in a certain way, that assessment is even better than getting straight “A”‘s.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY IS JAMMED WITH MADDENING PARADOXES, conditions that can work to either promote or thwart creativity, or, insanely, do both at once. One of the more maddening of these conditions came about with the dawn of the digital age. Suddenly, the unforgiving economics of film, which had made people work slowly and deliberately (lest they click their way into the poorhouse) shifted in favor of the photographer. Now, in essence, once he bought the camera, he was virtually shooting for free, meaning, in practical terms, he could produce more images, at shorter and shorter delivery times, than had previously been possible. Good, huh?
Well, in terms of the learning curve for making good photographs, swell. Being able to shoot hundreds of shots in a fraction of the time that it used to take to crank out dozens sped that curve up dramatically. This meant that there was at least the potential to get good in a shorter stretch of time. But with those instant mega-batches of pics came a price…measured not in money or convenience, but in precision.
Simply put, shooting at the speed of instinct obliterates the careful pre-planning that film used to enforce on us. It’s an anti-contemplative way to make pictures, since the fact that we can make so many of them so quickly begs the issue of whether we should do so, or whether we might merely slow down and make fewer but better photos. Some photographers have tried to steal back those precious moments of deliberation by using simpler, more purely mechanical cameras, forcing them to pause and think before every shot, in order to compensate for a device that can’t do nearly everything by itself. Others have decided to give film another try, again to make mistakes costlier, make the results more uncertain, and thus promote a more painstaking prep for each frame.
Point That Thing Somewhere Else #354, January 2023. 1/800 sec., f/6.5, 2000mm, ISO 200.
In my own case, my recent accidental wanderings into more wildlife work, dictated by the narrowed range of safety during the pandemic, has had the extra benefit of making me take more time to shoot fewer pictures. First of all, both the focus and zoom functions on the camera used in this capture of an American kestrel are sloooow, meaning that firing multi-bursts at a rapidly moving object is just a waste of time. And beyond just having to wait on the camera to respond, choosing a moment when the bird is moving the least is another calculation that slows the decision-making process. You must simply wait for the shot to come to you rather than just firing off a fusillade of frames and hoping something works out. Presto. You’re working slower, and with more mindfulness.
When it comes to creativity, speed doesn’t necessarily kill, but in many cases there is nothing to be lost by interjecting the occasional “why am I doing this?” into the process. It takes longer, but it was that very reduced speed that accompanied many of the greatest images that were ever made, in the days before we could shoot as fast as we could press the shutter. Taking a breath sometimes resets the mind and solidifies the intention.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
NOSTALGIA, AS YOGI BERRA FAMOUSLY REMARKED, ain’t what it used to be. Photography often feeds on a longing for the past, either in the artificial retro-rendering of the way we used to capture images (think faux tintypes), or an affection for the actual life events we chose to preserve Back In Der Day (see every old shoebox of snaps you own). And now, in an unusual twist, Gen-Z shooters are experiencing their own time-specific manifestation of this pleasant pang, focusing on the very beginning of the digital era.
Suddenly a significant number of media influencers and Instagram mavens have turned away from cell phones as their default cameras and re-embraced the earliest days of pixelated point-and-shoots. Raiding Mom’s junk drawer for a working Canon Powershot or Kodak Easyshare, a growing number of Z-ers are seeking the lo-fi tech that accompanied many of their most important personal memories, peppering their online feeds with uploads of delightfully (and intentionally) flawed photos. So try to track this, history lovers: we have gone from film cameras to primitive digital cameras to more advanced digital cameras to remarkably advanced phone-based point-and-shoots back to primitive digital…all in the service of (sing it with me) Memories…light the corners of my mind…misty, water-color memm…...(ahem, sorry).
In some ways, this mini-trend echoes the fascination many young hipsters have long held for analog film as well as the crappy cameras that make them look even more, well, filmic, as if the technically derelict pics that emerge from them are somehow more tactile, more authentic than those from the latest iPhone or Android. And while I understand this desire to return to some Eden of lost youth, I cannot truly share the sensation.
I mean, look at this thing.
Behold my first-ever digital, a p&s from 2001 that boasted a Herculean 1.3 MP in raw, beefy picture power. For those of us who’ve forgotten the math, that’s a whopping 1280 x 960 worth of resolution, not exactly the stuff of dream enlargements or even decent screen quality, but hey, the picture’s ready right away (hear me talkin’, oh Polaroid pioneers!) Such cameras were, to the first generation of digi-users, a P.O.C. (proof of concept) that was also a P.O.C. (piece of crap). Full disclosure: my actual D-370 has long since disintegrated in my hand, meaning that I had to scan the interweb for an image of it. And yet, with such devices, say the young-un’s in the Then-Was-Better movement, I captured my prom, I chronicled our rafting trip, we giggled through Graduation Day. The remarks of one of the uber-young who are re-experiencing their salad days says expresses the sensation thus: “I feel like we’re becoming a bit too techy. To go back in time is just a great idea.”
Pardon me if I restrain my giddy joy.
I never took a technically acceptable picture with this peashooter, and I ran into the welcoming arms of my first DLSRs with unbridled optimism. Now, it could be argued that I finally can take technically acceptable pictures, but haven’t yet learned how to breathe a soul into them, but that’s a confession for another time. Some of those returning to first-gen digitals claim that the experience is one of simplifying or slowing down their picture-making, and on that count, I wish them godspeed. Whatever (and whenever) it takes to make a picture you love, from daguerreotypes to Kodachrome, you do you, and ignore all the old sods that say Don’t.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE APPEAL OF PHOTOGRAPHIC PHONE APPS lies not in their efficacy or even the overall quality of their output, but in their sheer, I-just-thought-I’d-try-this convenience, the ability to immediately scratch whatever creative itch has just come over you. Given the amazing speed of even formalized editing suites from Photoshop on down, apps are thus shortcuts within shortcuts, immediate gratification for the most extremely ADD among us. And certainly there is no harm in this kind of Veruga Salt I-want-it-now impulse processing, unless, of course, you mind the substantial reduction in pictorial quality that accompanies many of them.
In the case of the symmetry design app called Flipper, seen in use here, so much compression occurs between the resolution in the iPhone master shot and the final processed shot that the picture is no longer dense enough for use as a printed image at any useful level of enlargement. Its lowered rez restricts its use to life on social media or other on-screen sharing. Shared back from the app to a site like Flickr, for example, it barely passes muster in terms of quality. Worse, importing it into Photos or similar traditional libraries causes even more compression. It’s a shame, because the very ability of apps to give the shooter editing options galore, anywhere, anytime is a potentially great benefit, but one which can create pictures that are at once creatively liberated and technically hobbled.
This makes total sense in terms of marketing, of course. The photo app industry operates at the pleasure of the phone format. It has no interest, frankly, in solving many editing or creative problems for people who intend to re-work phone images for use in other formats or media. The cel and the app are perfect partners, each amping up usage and adoption by the other, and so all apps have to do is find out how to make people take and share more phone images. The rest of the photographic universe, for them, is basically moot.
And so there is no real incentive to expansively improve the image integrity of app-derived photos, because they look good enough on what they were designed for and for the users to whom they are marketed. And that’s not likely to change in the near future, if ever, which makes apps of limited value for a substantial portion of the photographic user base. Certainly we use apps to mostly “see what happens when I do this”, but ideally, we also want pictures that rise to a certain standard of quality, regardless of how they’re eventually to be used, and we’re a long way out from that particular harbor.
An experimental mix of pedestrian and auto space shows Times Square in transition, 2009.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS I WRITE THIS, in about the eleventh hour of the new year 2023, cleaning crews are still restoring Times Square to its regular state of controlled chaos, a steady rhythm of wretched excess that, every December 31st, erupts into an even more intense blizzard of litter and license, a national ritual marking the shift from one year to another. And along with the tons of confetti and collapsed Planet Fitness top hats that will be swept away, the square itself, like an endlessly re-sculpted shoreline, settles back into a shape that is totally the same and yet totally different.
It’s hard to believe that ’23 will only mark the ninth year since the conversion of the world’s most famous address to 100% pedestrian traffic. What began in 2009 as a partial experiment in accident control (following a tsunami of auto mishaps in the neighborhood) proved so popular that, by 2014, a permanent change was effected, making Times Square a total walking district/would-be park, or “public space” as we now call it. During the transition, native New Yawkers griped about the Square’s total surrender to the dreaded onslaught of tourists, and the area’s main architectural feature became five-story, perpetually-blazing billboards for Broadway shows, chain restaurants and soft drinks. Nearly a decade later, the jury’s still out on whether the changes produced a bright, cheery playland or a grotesque Sodom. The answer you get depends on who you ask.
Just two years later, in 2011, the Square has been completely converted to 100% foot traffic. How Times (Square) change(s).
The take-away for photographers is that if, on any given day, you see a version of the Square that you like, preserve it, as I did in the above from a Sunday morning in November of 2011. Like all other images before it, this particular “Times Square” is now a frozen abstraction of a place that is just the same, only different. And it was ever thus: going back nearly a century to when the “new” Times building opened to literal explosions of dynamite to mark the incoming year, the neighborhood has served as a mercurial barometer of America’s quick, impatient transit. Perhaps it was the crossroads effect, the coming together of so many disparate motives, all colliding near the nexus of the popular press, show business, and loud, insistent commerce. Perhaps it is our worhip of the novel, the new. For whatever reason, the Square evolved from day-to-day like the subtle oscillations of a seismograph, taking a measure of the country’s cultural plates and how they scrape and grind against each other in the city’s inexorable tectonic ballet.
We all understand the concept that only change is permanent. After all, even the New York Times only occupied offices at “One Times Square” for eight years. Still, there are few places on Earth where that impermanence is evidenced in such undeniably visual detail. Life in New York at large is all, to a degree, arranged around the dictum of Do It Now. But in Times Square, the frames of film flicker by so very quickly that individual images, no longer distinguishable, rush into a blurry illusion of continuous motion….the ultimate movie. Small wonder that we treasure a few frozen frames as the parade crushes past us.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SINCE EVERY PHOTOGRAPHER, LIKE EVERY OTHER LIVING PERSON, tends to cast himself as the hero in his own story, we love to close out the calendar year with, at least, a lenient assessment of what, in our art, has passed for progress. Whether honestly or not, we are wedded to the idea that we should be x-times further down the evolutionary plane on Dec. 31 than we were at January 1st. We always entertain the idea that, at bottom, we have, at least, not lost ground.
Like most self-diagnoses, this method is fraught with the possibility of self-delusion. Especially at the remote remove of time, I freely admit that, in some years, my picture-making was flat, even retrograde, mired in unwise habits or moldy with old ideas. This year, I’m not really certain where to place the crayon mark on the growth chart. It’s easy to list the uber-moves, the obvious ways my work changed, less easy to nail down what, if anything, I managed to create. In most years, I’ll settle for a solid B, with an A for Effort if I’m feeling generous, or drunk, or both.
I started the year by turning seventy and making the shift from DSLRs to mirrorless, a decision I still regard as defensive rather than visionary, convinced, as I still am, that manufacturers have decided (prematurely in my estimation) to abandon one good format for another good format, creating an “either/or” market that could easily have accommodated both. And while I am admittedly happy in Mirrorlessland, the main reason I fled DSLRville is because I had finally worn out my shutter mechanism and found myself in a world in which both product support and forward development for such devices was going to be summarily yanked.
The jump into the new format also meant working at full-frame instead of cropped dimensions for the first time in a decade, which meant getting the full visual field out of my old collection of lenses, all of which had been shooting at a 1.5x reduction. Finally 24mm meant 24, not 36. This factor alone redefined my sense of composition.
I also spent 2022 rediscovering the delights of 50mm primes, since I had finally found one of the many great third-party pancake lenses being introduced for the Nikon Z format. The Normal Eye originally grew out of a solid year I had spent with an earlier “nifty fifty”, and I found that working for long stretches with the flexibility of this simple glass was like meeting an old friend on the street.
Finally, after experimenting with a recipe of pre-sets for in-camera monochrome that I truly enjoyed, I locked them into a handy dial button and spent more than a solid month shooting nothing else. For that reason, I believe that a black-and-white shot, like the one that’s posted here, is most representative of my work in ’22. I later acquired a similar recipe for the best faux-Kodachrome simulation I’d ever worked with, again, completely in-camera.
Did all these new toys and tools result in better pictures? Experience has taught me that it’ll actually take a lot longer than twelve months to determine that. However, every shift in procedure or technique has at least the potential to unlock something fresh within the photographer’s normal eye. Perhaps at some point, I’ll find out if that potential was realized.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YEAR THREE OF THE GREAT HIBERNATION. Another four seasons of ducking, dodging, hoping, praying, holding one’s breath and occasionally expelling a few primal screams. Life as it is lived now.
Along the way, I have followed the commentary of many photographers on how this seismic shift in priorities and objectives has permanently changed the way they see, and, in turn, the way they make pictures. How could it not? We’re all now a strange admixture of commentator, war correspondent, spurned lover and satirist, filtering every image through a very different eye. Even the act of doing an end-of-year inventory of shots that both hit and missed, we can track a pattern in the evolving needs of our seeing.
One thing that’s incredibly ironic in my own case is that the confinement of The After Time has forced me to at least try to make some minor breakthrough in my landscape work, demonstrably my weakest suit over a lifetime. Whereas the Ansels of the world would look out upon nature and see endless variations on the themes of Majesty and Harmony, I would just see….trees. Certainly wonderful trees, cool trees, but trees that, somehow, didn’t shout messages at me in the clear, insistent tones of the things that arise from city streets, regardless of where I am. But a funny thing happened on the way to Please Don’t Let Me Catch This Crud. Forced to remove myself from a lot of public places, I found myself with two simple choices: take pictures of what was currently in front of me (increasingly rural, outdoor areas), or just stop shooting altogether.
Now, I’d love to stand here and say that I have achieved some kind of epiphany as a result, that my landscape work now possesses the eloquence of angels and poets, but what has happened is that, by virtue of a major challenge to what was going to be in front of me, I have begun to react a bit more creatively to subject matter that I had always regarded as, well, just “nice” or “pretty”. The power of silence and solitude is upon me a bit more, now…..not enough to transform me into Thoreau, but sufficiently effective in helping me “get” what’s in front of me.
What do you call it? Growing up? Learning how to “simplfy”? Getting out of my own way? Learning to hear the quiet?
Damn. When I try to put it into words, I sound like the liner notes from a Rod McKuen album (look it up, X-ers). But when I rediscovered the shot you see here, from a particularly rich summer-of-22 weekend spent at close quarters with lakes and forests near Show Low, Arizona, I can remember that some extra something kicked in. And, with luck, will stay in.
The formula for WIDWID (Why I Do What I Do) has been altered. I see differently now.
Hopefully the pictures will follow.
I originally thought a soft, glow-y look would “sell” the vintage look of this truck. Not so sure now…
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I’M A BIG BELIEVER IN SECOND DRAFTS. Part of this comes from my work in commercial copywriting, a field that has only two truths: (A) the customer is always right, and (B) the customer will almost never accept your first effort without changes. Another part of my comfort with re-do’s is my background as an illustrator, a craft that teaches you that your vision seldom comes straight out of the pencil in its fullest or final form. Both professions thrive on negative feedback, and being cool with that can reduce the number of heartaches you’ll face in other imperfect endeavors, such as being a photographer.
Factors like time, travel and opportunity can certainly force shooters to accept their first attempt at an image, simply because getting on a flight or meeting someone for lunch or dodging the rain can mean they have no choice but to accept the one try they’re going to get on a given subject. But even within a narrow time span, digital gear makes it much easier for for us to shoot-and-check-and-shoot-again quickly, resulting in more saves and keepers. But these are all technical considerations, which still ignore the biggest, and most crucial factor in getting the picture right. And that’s us.
Take Two, several days (and several degrees of sharpness) later….
Sometimes we leave a shoot satisfied that we nailed it, only to find, back home, that we were nowhere near the nail and didn’t know how to use the hammer. We didn’t choose the right glass, or the right angle, or, most importantly, the right conception of what would make the image speak. If we’re lucky, we are geographically close enough to the original site that we can go back for a retry. And if we’re really lucky, the time span between first and second draft has shown us what needs to change.
In the two shots of a rusted truck seen here, I was certain, at first, that merely suggesting the wear and tear on the old wreck with a hazy, soft look, would sell a certain nostalgic mood, whereas, once I returned home, my masterpiece just looked like a mess. There’s a red line between soft focus and mush, and I had truly stumbled across it. Fortunately, I was close enough to the truck to drive back and try again with a conventionally sharp image, which I think actually works better overall, at least for me. Fortunately, the time between my first and follow-up attempts was enough to let my approach evolve, and, luckily, I wasn’t blocked from giving it a second go because of time, travel or opportunity. Point is, there is sometimes real value in being forced to wait, to delay the instant gratification that our tech tells us should be our default. Sometimes, we come closer to the mark when we are forced to hurry up and wait.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
NEAR THE END OF EVERY YEAR, SINCE ITS INCEPTION, The Normal Eye has cast a fond eye on the romance that persisted for nearly one hundred years between the Eastman Kodak Company and the worldwide market for amateur photography, a market it almost singlehandedly created. These posts have also included a nostalgic nod toward the firm’s famous Christmas advertising, which regularly instructed recipients of a new Kodak camera to “open me first” on the big day. Because before George Eastman could successfully put an easily operated and affordable camera into the world’s hands, he first had to answer the question, “but what will I use it for?”, a question with a very single answer: memory.
Like every savvy marketer, Eastman knew that he not only had to teach people how to use his simple new device: he had to teach them to desire it as well. Memories were the bait. As the world first learned how to say “Kodak” (A nonsense word Eastman devised to stand for nothing but itself in any language), it also had to be sold on its most compelling use, that of a storage medium for humans’ most treasured experiences. Aided in the late nineteenth century by the infant art of mass market advertising, Eastman pitched the camera as the new, essential means of not just recording important events but conferring importance on them. A gathering, a party, a wedding, the family dog at play…these were not really memories at all, unless and until a Kodak anointed them as such. It was a new way for the world to regard its experiences, not as valuable by themselves alone, but valuable because a Kodak, one’s own Kodak, had captured them. Today, we still react to life with the same urgent need. This will make a great picture. I have to get a picture of this.
Advertise photography without using a photograph? Hey, welcome to 1900, folks.
And what could be a greater potential harvesting ground for these memories than Christmas Day? Almost from Kodak’s beginnings, Eastman mounted annual ad campaigns that emphasized how precious, how fleeting were the moments of joy and discovery that accompanied the opening of presents, certainly when those presents included a new Kodak camera. As seen in the above image, this sales pitch started even before most major newspapers could even reliably reproduce a photograph of any kind in their pages, leading to ads that touted the benefits of photography with only drawings or paintings of the product being used! Talk about the power of suggestion…..
The marketing of any product, from the automobile to the iPhone, starts with the engineering of desire, of convincing consumers they need a thing and then selling it to them. With luck, the buyer sees that they do, indeed, “need” that thing (even if they never knew it before), and come to think of it as indispensable. And so it was with the ability to freeze time in a box. As in Eastman’s time, we still see the value of those boxes, even as their functions have shifted and evolved. We still want the magic. And the trick is still enchanting. Every. Single. Time.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS WHO CUT THEIR TEETH ON ASSIGNED SHOOTS, usually at the behest of some outside employer or editor, have a natural propensity to cut to it, to speedily seek out the heart of the action and eke out the central story. Arrive at the scene of the fire. Determine who is in charge, and where the crisis of the immediate moment is. Shoot pictures of same. Lather rinse repeat.
But even those trained to shoot the very peak of drama in a given scene can occasionally find something interesting in what has not yet happened or what just happened. Many events seem to emerge with some advance staging, and some yield either interesting aftermaths or epilogs if you’re patient enough to look for them. In our visual reporting, we understandably focus on the books on the shelf, but in fact the bookends, or the vase of flowers to the left and right of those tomes might also have something worth capture.
On the morning I shot this, I was understandably eager to get beyond the parking lot of a Ventura beach and down to the beach itself, assuming that the day’s typical harvest of dog-walkers, swimmers, and surfers would give me a few easy grabs. To be honest, a big part of the reason for taking this frame was to test my settings and see how my telephoto would compress things that were fairly far away from each other….a worthy consideration when shooting tight over really vast spaces. But just as you might find interest in a shot of actors and stage hands milling about just before the theatre curtain rises, I kinda liked the smashed composition of several folks talking, flexing, lifting and unloading as they prepared to hit the beach. I liked the “nearly there” aspect of it. Life as it almost is, or is about to be.
I firmly believe that sometimes we either shoot too early or too late on either side of a central story. But I also think that time is just a lot of little major and minor stories stitched together, and so there are always choices as to which of an infinite number of narratives we decide to extract in a given moment. Turns out, I lucked into several others on this day. But showing the seams where one story ends as another begins can be a good gig, as well.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE HOLIDAY SEASON PROVIDES THE PHOTOGRAPHER WITH A READY-MADE BAG OF NEW APPROACHES, playfully disorienting and flooding the senses, upending what we usually think we know about color and light. Decorations are never mere add-ons, but true transformations, creating elegance in plain spaces, underscoring and amplifying our emotions. At the personal level, the sheer accumulated tonnage of memory is the unseen effect behind all the glitter and glow, and it’s that ethereal quality that I try to inject into an already fattened goose of holiday sensations. I take the merely surreal and push it all the way into the dream realm.
That’s not to say that there isn’t such a thing as going too far when it comes to overripe seasonal images. I just suspect that there isn’t, nor have I experienced that feeling myself. In other words, far too much is just far enough when it comes to Christmas. It’s a time for revelry, not reserve, and so the pictures are allowed to scream as well as whisper. Scenes that usually rely on precision, tight focus, perfect lighting, even balanced composition are somehow, for a time, given extra space to flex into the realm of fantasy. Realism takes a holiday during the holidays.
The great thing about a season loaded with subjective impressions is that there truly are no limits on what can be depicted, or in what manner. It’s a time when even the most rigid amongst us relaxes a bit and dials the discipline back to about 4. It’s freeing, and it shows in our pictures. In some cases, it allows us to rediscover the instinctual defaults of childhood, the ability to shoot a photo just to see what happens. In all cases, it makes the days all about visual adventure, the kind of inner joy that’s allowed to come out and play, in front of witnesses.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I TEND TO REGARD MUSEUM SPACE MUCH THE SAME WAY I VIEW THEATRICAL SPACE, as a staging point for stories and dreams. The best of such institutions achieve nearly the same suspensions of disbelief and time as one experiences in a great play or opera. Curators can create their own version of reality, choreographing our interpretation of events in nearly infinite ways. And just as there is no set “correct” theatrical interpretation of an eternal work like Hamlet or Death Of A Salesman, museums can present their own “take” on history, while freeing us to do likewise.
This, as you might surmise, follows through to the pictures we make of the various exhibits and objects. Therefore, as photographers, we need not be anchored to the mere documentary recording of images of things on display. With a little experimentation in either equipment or approach, we can be as interpretive in how we perceive an artifact as the presenters were in how they choose to showcase it. There is no one “right” way to photograph rare or exotic exhibits.
Jazz giant Lionel Hampton’s 1935 Deagan “King George” Vibraphone, seen at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, AZ.
Official photographs by the museums themselves tend to be straight “product” or “catalog” shots, and, from a purely marketing point of view, that’s probably as it should be. But in visiting the museum as artists, we are free of all such constraints. We are not on salary, and it’s not our job to reflect upon the intentions of the House. In that way, our views of the goods are completely liberated, and that is where the fun stuff happens.
Personally, I tend to render exhibits that interest me in a gauzy dream state. I find that framing them in a kind of retro-real fashion tears them loose from their original temporal moorings. They return to being just things, judged by their own contours and design, rather than as part of an official narrative. And once they are absolute objects, anything can be drawn from or projected onto them as I desire. And that is so much more interesting than just snapping them as a sort of souvenir of my visit.
Museums are not merely warehouses. They are places for dreams to converge and reveal themselves. And if we are lucky (and open), we can aid that process, and make everything in those hallowed halls ring with new song.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
BEFORE I CAN SURPRISE ANYONE WITH A PHOTOGRAPH, I myself must be surprised. It’s true that by re-examining familiar subjects, I can occasionally bring some under-appreciated feature of it to light, but, in the main, I do my best work when I have little or no idea what’s coming next. I have to be dislocated to some degree to feel at home.
I have to jump-start the section of my brain that inclines toward a fresh perspective or a novel approach. Placing myself in the position of A Stranger or A First-Time Visitor throws me enough of a sensory curve to knock me back off my comfort perch and see with something that approximates an original eye. And the culture I have inherited from thousands of generations of seekers shows me that I am not alone in this.
The film director Sydney Pollack once said that many of the greatest stories in history involve being thrown out of Eden, lost from home, forced to navigate what Star Trek calls “strange new worlds”. His thinking was that, from the Odyssey to Huckleberry Finn to The Wizard of Oz to E.T., an amazing transformation happens to all of a culture’s heroes due to their being, at least for a while, outcast from their points of origin. In terms of photography, while I can’t say that my favorite images always result from striking out into alien territory, I am firmly convinced that the feeling of estrangement, of being, for a time, banished from one’s factory settings can create the spark for creativity. Images that come from that insecurity act as a kind of reset button for the senses. We are on heightened alert when we’re tossed out of the nest, and that informs the pictures we make.
My absolute favorite pictures over a lifetime are the ones that I had no plan for in the moment, no prior experience that could help me know what to do about them, no other clear motive other than the certainty that I wanted to make them somehow. Let’s face it, few of us would deliberately head out to see what a car wash looks like after dark in a forgotten midtown neighborhood of Los Angeles as seen through a rain-smeared windshield, but once I saw one, I wanted to capture it. Don’t ask me why. It’s not my favorite picture in the world, but it is my favorite way to allow myself to stretch a bit.
“I photograph to see what something looks like photographed”, said Garry Winogrand, who shot with as pure a sense of impulse as any photographer I’ve ever seen. And I can come close to that purity of purpose when I’m out of my element. Sometimes that means going to a physically different location, but other times it might merely be achieved by going into the left side rather than the right side in a museum, or visiting an anteroom you’ve somehow ignored the first 10,000 times you entered the same building.
Some operate from the principle of familiarizing yourself with your surroundings before making a picture. I often hit pay dirt when I shoot despite the fact that I’m unsure of where it’s all heading. Both approaches have gifted me with images that surprised me. In the meantime, you may find that admitting that, yes, you’re a stranger here pries opens your eyes, and in turn, your heart.
A quaint old workshop, but it’s inside a room that is too small for everything in it to be shown with a standard focal length.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I DUNNO. IT MAY BE BECAUSE WE ASSOCIATE WIDE-ANGLES LENSES WITH LANDSCAPES. You know the kind of images I mean: vast canvasses of sprawling geography that seem to draw our eye enormous distances between left and right sides of the frame, enforcing an idea that we have to “get everything in” when composing our image. Perfect solution: Wiiiiiiide-angle! No cropping of a cool mountain or a winding river needed! Hey, all you trees, crowd in together, willya?
In reality, I almost never use a wide-angle lens for exposition of big subjects. The lens can magnify distances, especially front-to-back distances, that I don’t particularly need to magnify, and so I use a normal focal length and just stand farther away from the scene. I believe that wide-angles are not designed to “get everything in” your picture. They are best used when they put you, yourself, farther inside a scene. Most wide shots fail because they are taken from too far away, when the feeling of “being there”, of having yourself immersed in a scene, is only accomplished the closer you are to the action. Or if you think of it in sonic terms, consider how more immersive stereo feels if you create the illusion that you are amongst the musicians instead of across from them.
Same room, now shown completely by moving in closer and using a 24mm wide-angle.
With this in mind, I think that wide-angles are absolutely essential when you find yourself in a cramped space, whereas using a normal 50mm width in such a situation, as seen at the top of this page, heightens the feeling of claustrophobia. More than half the detail in the medium-sized workshop in the image is simply lost, including the space’s entire left side and ceiling, both of which are loaded with interesting information. Snap on a 24mm wide-angle, however, as I did in the second view, and the room opens up, even though I am leaning physically farther into the room’s doorway than I did when using the 50. Instead of using a wide-angle to back up and “get everything in” (what? the door frame? the outside of the tool shack?) I placed myself further into the scene and let it, if you like, wrap around me.
Composition is part instinct, part inspiration and part calculation. Focal lengths can operate counter-intuitively in some situations, but ahead of the right tool comes the right idea. When both arrive at the scene together, the good stuff happens.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I DID NOT INHERIT MY FATHER’S PASSIONATE TALENT FOR GARDENING and landscaping, although I have always envied the way it miraculously devours him, each season bestowing on him distinct and endless variants of joy. He has owned and maintained the creekside half-acre back of his house for a third of a century now, and, as the aches and pains and limits of his ninety-three years often forbid his going out to play in his own private Walden, I cheer on days when I know it is clear enough, or warm enough, or safe enough for him to be out there. He and the yard get lonely for each other.
What was transmitted to me was his very special love of trees. I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t awed by their beauty, their power, their endurance. That’s why my favorite part of my own “estate” is my view of the towering, sprawling titan just over the rear fence in my neighbor’s back yard. It’s unusual for an old, solid, massive thing like this to have survived the yank-everything-out-start-over ethos of the Southwest suburbs. Perhaps removing it was simply too expensive, too troublesome, leaving it to stand when many lesser trees might have been cleared out to make way for (??) progress? In any event, like anything that is purely or simply beautiful, it makes photographing it fairly complicated.
Over the past twenty years I have captured it in low light and full, dusk and dawn, rain or shine, and still I always come away feeling like I have failed to deliver its full story. Then again, what can its “story” even be? It’s a tree. But therein lies the paradox of making images of anything living, from human passersby to majestic landscapes. Their life is both static and in motion, both in and out of time. The camera both records accurately and lies absolutely when I point it at such a thing.
And so I keep going. What you see here is but the latest attempt from a few days ago. If you have the time, I can put on the kettle and guide you through the hundreds of other attempts I’ve made over the years at finding the soul of my gentle giant. Being that I don’t have to journey to the forest primeval to find something to admire this much, I admit to thinking that I have, you know, plenty of time to get it right. But, while the tree isn’t going anywhere, I certainly am headed, and before too long, for the stage exit. And so I keep going.
The tree has already gotten it right.
Maybe, by running a little harder, I can, in time, catch up with it…..
To quote out of context is the essence of the photographer’s craft. His central problem is a simple one: what shall he include, and what shall he reject? While the draughtsman starts with the middle of the sheet, the photographer starts with the frame.
–John Szarkowski, The Photographer’s Eye
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVER SINCE I FIRST READ THAT SHORT PARAGRAPH, many moons ago, I realized that it contained everything I would ever need to know about composition. Other writers have rhapsodized both long and short, clear and muddy, beyond those few words, but John Szarkowski, the most significant figure in the curation of American photography, laid out, in concise prose, the terms of engagement between shooter and subject in such a clear fashion that little more need be said on the subject. It’s all there.
Szarkowski (1925-2007) was not the first director of Photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, but he was certainly among the first to act as a forceful, articulate voice to advocate for the act of making pictures, insisting that it assume its rightful place, without apology or embarassment, among the established arts. Moreover, he purposefully curated MOMA’s photographic collections with the fervor and eloquence of a true believer, using the institution’s reputation as a springboard to advance the careers of Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, and dozens of other emerging American artists*. His third MOMA exhibition, 1964’s The Photographer’s Eye, was adapted into a book by the same name two years later, and has since maintained a vital place as one of the foundational primers not only on what to see, but also how to see. I recommend it to all avid new shooters, but also to anyone who even looks at photographs and wonders what all the fuss is about. It’s that essential.
TPE contains 172 duotone images arranged into five distinct sections, each addressing a part of the mystery: The Thing Itself, The Detail, The Frame (from which the above quote is taken), Time, and The Vantage Point. Szarkowski confines his commentary to a brief set-up essay ahead of each section, then lets the pictures, taken by unknown amateurs and pros alike, to do most of the talking. The Photographer’s Eye was followed by other instructional canons over the course of Szarkowski’s career, including 1973’s Looking At Photographs to 1989’s Photography Until Now among many others. If you’re keen on building an essential library, throw these in the shopping cart as well.
Coming from a sensibility borne of his own photographic output, John Szarkowski forever ended the debate about whether the camera could produce “art”, even as he sparked many other discussions about what that art should look like. The Photographer’s Eye is as essential to picture-making as learning how to select an aperture or calculate a shutter speed, as it glorifies all the myriad motives for what goes into, or stays out of, that wonderful frame.
*Winogrand, Arbus, and Friedlander were, in fact, specifically showcased in Szarkowski’s historic exhibition, New Documents, in 1967. Here’s a link to MOMA’s page celebrating its enduring impact—M.P.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SMALL TOWNS ACROSS AMERICA STILL PRACTICE a way of observing life that many of us have more or less abandoned, the idea of our homes as reviewing stands for humanity’s passing parade. Porches, as we built them in our smaller, slower days, were more than mere entrances into our homes: they were places to visit, observe, and comment. The wraparound verandas and shaded repose that we designed into our houses were like a buffer layer between the raw world out there and the warm world beyond our thresholds. Porches, in the days before the stubby stoops and short step-ups we feature today, were for something.
Visit someplace that has been lucky enough to survive the transition from village life to city life and you will find these places still personalized and painted, still decked with mini-gardens, flags, and seasonal decor, still serving as a distinct middle world between inside and outside. The idea of the street as a kind of low-impact entertainment, with neighbors and newcomers alike filing past, some to be actively engaged with, some just serving as moving scenery, has a slow, simple appeal in an age dominated by screens, scrolling and infinite entertainment options. But you have to pause, and breathe, and be patient to get the full effect.
It’s worth lingering over, and that is why, in visiting small towns, the very first place I go is the main residential boulevard. That’s where the action is. The sad fact is that we are often moving too quickly to see that action. It’s like trying to train yourself to observe the movement of the hands of a watch. Getting yourself aligned with the steady but imperceptible pace of the timepiece takes practice, and learning to see the gradual reveal of a house’s heart by first taking the measure of its porch is a habit that we have long since lost the natural knack for. But there is a reward in it, and there are pictures in it, and therefore it is worth doing.