By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE CHOICE OF TIME, PLACE AND APPROACH IN THE MAKING OF A PORTRAIT is as individual as the human face itself. No two photographers have quite the same process for trying to capture the essence of personality with a camera. Moreover, having chosen a preferred path to making these most personal of images, we often are tempted to stray off of it. As with anything else in the art of creating photos, nothing, from formal studio settings to street candids, works all the time.
Just as one example, the key to portraits, for me, is to always be as fully mindful, in the moment, of the changes that a face can display within the space of a few seconds. You seem to be presented, from start to finish, with a different person altogether…..some other person that showed up, uninvited, to the shoot you’re doing for..someone else. Thus, it’s never a surprise to me when a subject views his/her image from a session, and immediately remarks, “that doesn’t even look like me”, which is, for them, quite correct. It’s as if their face showed something, just for a second, that they don’t recognize as their “official” face. And the photographer sees all these strangers blur by, like the shuffle of a deck of cards.
In photographing my wife Marian, I battle against her native resistance to having her face recorded, well, at all. It’s a rather invasive procedure for her, and, since the finest qualities of her face are revealed when she’s least self-conscious. That rules out studio settings, since all her “danger, Will Robinson” triggers will go off simultaneously the more formalized the situation becomes. I have to use that momentary mindfulness to sense when her face is ready….that is, when she is least aware of having her picture taken. That may mean that many other people are around her, since interaction is relaxing and distracting for her. In the above image, I got particularly lucky, since several factors converged in a moment that I could not have anticipated.
Listening to a history guide on the streets of Boston, Marian’s face set into a wonderful mix of serenity, focus, studiousness. Her finest qualities seem all to have coalesced in a single moment. Even better, although she is in a crowd, the arrangement of people surrounding her kept all other faces either out of focal register or partially hidden, rendering them less readable as full people. That gave the composition a center, as hers was the only complete face in view. Click and done.
Portraits are certainly about anticipation and preparation. But they also have to be about the reactivity of the photographer. And with something as mutative, and mysterious, as the human face, flexibility is a far more valuable tool than any lens or light in your kit bag.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE LUXURY THAT PAINTERS HISTORICALLY ENJOYED OVER PHOTOGRAPHERS was the pure prolonged incubation time between their conception of a thing and its realization on the canvas. Whatever else painting is, it is never an instantaneous process, something that is especially true for portraits. The daubing of strokes, mixing of paint, the waiting for the light, and the waiting for the model to arrive (take a bathroom break, eat dinner, etc.) all contribute to painting’s bias toward the long game. The process cannot be hurried. There is no pigmentary equivalent of the photographic snap shot. Patience is a virtue.
The first photographs of people were likewise a gradual thing, with extended exposure times dictated by the slow speed of early plate and film processes. Once that obstacle was overcome, however, it became a simple thing to snap a person’s face in less and less time. Today, outside of the formal studio experience, most of us freeze faces in record timae, and that may be a bit of a problem in trying to create a true portrait of a person.
Portraits are more than mere recordings, since the subject matter is infinitely more complex than an apple or a vase of flowers. The daunting task of trying to capture some essential quality, some inner soulfulness with a mechanical device should make us all stop and think a little, certainly a little longer than a fraction of a second. Portraits at their best are a kind of psychoanalysis, an negotiation, maybe even a co-creation between two individuals. The best portraitists can be said to have produced a visible relic of something invisible. Can that be done in the instant that it takes to shout “cheese” at somebody?
And if the process of portraiture is, as I argue, an innately personal thing, how can we trust the “street portraits” that we steal from the unsuspecting passerby? Are any of these images revelatory of anything real, or have we only snatched a moment from the onrushing current of a person’s life? Taking the argument away from the human face for a moment, if I take a picture of a single calendar date page, have I made a commentary on the passage of time, or merely snapped a piece of paper with a number on it?
Painters have always been forced into some kind of relationship with their subjects. Some fail and some succeed, but all are approached with an element of planning, of intent. By contrast, the photographer must apprehend what he wants from a face in remarkably short time, and hope his instinct can make an intimate out of a virtual stranger.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WINDOW LIGHT IS A BOY PHOTOGRAPHER’S BEST FRIEND. The glass usually acts like a diffuser, softening and warming the rays as they enter, making for intimate portrait and street shots. Window light tends to wrap around the objects in its path, adding a look of depth and solidity to furniture and people. It’s also uncomplicated, universally available, and free. And that’s great for cell phone cameras.
At this writing, Apple’s next iPhone will soon up the ante on both resolution and light sensitivity, meaning that more and more shots will be saved that just a few years ago would have been lost, as the mobile wars give us more features, more control, and more decision-making options that recently belonged only to DSLRs and other upper-end product. That will mean that the cameras will perform better with less light than ever before, over-coming a key weakness of early mobiles.
That weakness centered on how the camera would deal with low-light situations, which was to open to its widest aperture and jack up the ISO, often resulting is grungy, smudgy images. Turn too many inches away from prime light (say a generous window in daytime) and, yes, you would get a picture, but, boy, was it ever dirty, the noise destroying the subtle gradation of tones from light to dark and often compromising sharpness. Those days are about to end, and when they do, people will have to seriously ask if they even need to lug traditional imaging gear with them, when Little Big Boy in their back pocket is bringing the “A” game with greater consistency.
As this new age dawns, experiment with single-point window light to see how clean an image it will deliver on a cel phone. Pivot away from the light by a few inches or feet, and compare the quality of the images as you veer deeper into shadow. You will soon know just how far you can push your particular device before the noise starts creeping in, and having that limit in your head will help you assess a scenario and shoot faster, with better results. Camera phones, at least at their present state of development, will only do so much, but you may be surprised at just how high their top end actually is. You need not miss a great shot just because you left your Leica in your other pants. As usual, the answer is, Always Be Shooting.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MOST OF US ENTER PHOTOGRAPHY WITH THE SAME AIM, that is, to arrest the flight of something precious with the trick effect of having frozen time. Someone or something is passing through our life all too quickly, and we use our cameras to isolate small pieces of those passages like a butterfly inside an amber cube. That means that our first work is our most personal, and, while we may later graduate to more general, more abstract recordings of light, subject, and shape, we all begin by chronicling events of the most intimate nature.
And as we grow into more interpretative, less reportorial imaging, we also grow away from the clear, focused aim of that earlier work. Be it a triptych of a birthday, an anniversary, a wake or a christening, we understand clearly what a snap is for, what it was after. Its purpose and its message are unmistakable, something that cannot always be said for other kinds of photographs. Indeed, looking back on some of our own output at the distance of just a few years, we can actually be at a loss to explain what we were going after in a given photograph, what we were trying to say. This doesn’t happen with the snap. Its subject matter, and the degree to which we correctly captured it, is readily visible.
This may speak to why photographers are often asked why they don’t take “more pictures of people”, or, more specifically, why did you take a picture of this person? Do you know him? No? Then why……..?? It isn’t that a connection between yourself and people who are strangers to you can’t be made in a photograph. It’s that it’s a lot harder to effectively tell that story. it requires less from the camera and more from you.
You need to fill in a lot more blanks in a tale in which fewer elements are pre-provided. You can convey something universal about the human condition with a picture of something outside your own experience, certainly. It’s just that it’s easier to make the link that exists between you, your mother, her birthday, and her surrounding gang of friends than between yourself and someone who is essentially alien to you, or to the rest of us. Of course, on the other side of the ledger, you can also shoot a bajillion pictures of those closest to you, and still manage to convey nothing of their true selves. Mere technical acuity is not intimacy, or vision.
Still, in general terms, the snap deserves a lot more respect than it gets, simply because there is, in these personal images, a near-perfect match alignment of shooter, subject and clarity of purpose. By contrast, when we venture out into the greater world, trying to tell equally effective stories with much less information is hard. Not impossible, but, man, really hard.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS HAVE MANY INSTANCES IN WHICH IT’S HEALTHY TO HAVE A LITTLE HUMILITY, and the biggest one probably is in the decision to depict a human face. It’s the most frequently performed operation in all of photography, and many of us only approach perfection in it a handful of times, if ever. The face is the essence of mystery, and learning how to draw the curtain away from it is the essence of mastery.
Nothing else that we will shoot fights so hard to maintain its inscrutability. It is easier to accurately photograph the microbes that swarm in a drop of water than to penetrate the masks that we manufacture. Even the best portrait artists might never show all of what their subject’s soul really looks like, but sometimes we can catch a fleeting glimpse, and getting even that little peek is enough to keep you behind a camera for a lifetime. It is everything.
Yousuf Karsh, the portraitist who can be said to have made the definitive images of Winston Churchill, Audrey Hepburn, JFK, Ernest Hemingway, and countless other notables, said “within every man and woman. a secret is hidden, and, as a photographer, it is my task to reveal it if I can.” Sounds so simple, and yet decades can go into learning the difference between recording a face and rendering its truths. Sometimes I think it’s impossible to photograph people who are strangers to us. How can that ever happen? Other times I fear that it’s beyond our power to create images of those we know the most intimately. How can we show all?
The human face is a document, a lie, a cipher, a self-created monument, an x-ray. It is the armor we put on in order to do battle with the world. It is the entreaty, the bargain, the arrangement with which we engage with each other. It is a time machine, a testimony, a faith. Photographers need their most exacting wisdom, their most profound knowledge of life, to attempt The Reveal. For many of us, it will always remain that….an attempt. For a fortunate few, there is the chance to freeze something eternal, the chance to certify humanity for everyone else.
Quite a privilege.
Quite a duty.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS, HARNESSING THE NATURAL ENERGY OF A CHILD is a little like flying a kite during a thunderstorm was for Ben Franklin. You might tap into a miraculous force of nature, but what are you going to do with it? Of course, there’s big money in artificially arranging light and props for formalized (or rather, idealized) portraits of kids. It’s a specialty art with specific rules and systems, and for proud parents, it’s a steady market. We all want our urchins “promoted” to angel status, albeit briefly. However, in terms of photographic gold, you can’t, for my money, beat the controlled chaos of children at play. It’s street photography with an overlay of comedy and wonder.
However, attempting to extract a miracle while watching kids be kids is like trying to capture either sports or combat, in that it has a completely different dynamic from second to second, so much so that you should be prepared to shoot a lot, shifting your focus and framing on the fly, since the center of the action will shift rapidly. I don’t necessarily believe that there is one decisive moment which will explain all aspects of childhood since the creation of the world, but I do think that some moments have a better balance between sizes, shapes, and story elements than others, although you will be shooting instinctively for much of the time, separating the wheat from the chaff later upon review of the results.
As with the aforementioned combat and sports categories, the spirit that is caught in a shot supersedes technical perfection. I’m not saying you should throw sharpness or composition to the wind, but I think the immediacy of some images trumps the controlled environment of the studio or a formal sitting. Some artifacts of blur, inconsistent lighting, or imprecise composition can be overlooked if the overall effect of the shot is truthful, visceral. The very nature of candid photography renders all arbitrary rules rather useless. The results justify themselves regardless of their raggedness, whereas a technically flawless shot that is also bloodless can never be justified on any grounds.
Work the moment; trust it to develop naturally; hitch a ride on the wave of the instantaneous.
By “available light”, I mean any $%#@ light that’s available. —-Joe McNally, world-renowned master photographer, author of The Moment It Clicks
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE EASIEST THINGS ABOUT ANALYZING THOSE OF OUR SHOTS THAT FAIL is that there is usually a single, crucial element that was missing in the final effort….one tiny little hobnail, without which the entire image simply couldn’t hold together. In a portrait, it could be a wayward turn of face or hint of a smile; in a landscape it could be one element too many, moving the picture from “charming” to “busy”. The secret to greater success, then, must lie in pre-visualizing a photograph to as great a degree as possible, in knowing in advance how many puzzle pieces must click into place to make the result work.
I recently attended an outdoor dance recital, during which I knew photography would be prohibited. I had just resigned myself to spend the night as a mere spectator, and was settling onto my lawn seat when some pre-show stretching exercises by the dancing company presented me with an opportunity. The available natural light in the sky had been wonderfully golden just minutes before, but, by the time the troupe took the stage and started into their poses and positions, it had grown pretty anemic. And then a stage hand gave me back that missing “puzzle piece”.
Climbing the gridwork at the right side of the stage, the techie was turning various lights on and off, trying them with gels, arcing them this way or that, devising various ways to illuminate the dancers as their director ran them through their paces. I decided to get off my blanket and hike down to the back edge of the stage, then wait for “my light” to come around in the rotation. Eventually, the stage hand turned on a combination that nearly replicated the golden light that I no longer was getting from the sky. It was single-point light, wrapping around the bodies of some dancers, making a few of them glow brilliantly, and leaving some other swaddled in shadow, reducing them to near-silhouettes.
For a moment, I had everything I needed, more than would be available for the entire rest of the evening. Now the physical elegance of the ballet cast was matched by the temporary drama of the faux-sunset coming from stage left. I moved in as closely as I could and started clicking away. I was shooting at something of an upward slant, so a little sky cropping was needed in the final shots, but, for about thirty seconds, someone else had given me the perfect key light, the missing puzzle piece. If I could find that stage hand, I’d buy her a few rounds. The win really couldn’t have happened without her.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
A QUICK GOOGLING OF THE PHOTOGRAPHIC UNIVERSE THESE DAYS will turn up a number of sites dedicated to “faceless portraits”, if there can, strictly speaking, be such a thing (and I believe there can). In a recent post entitled Private, Not Impersonal, I explored the phenomenon in which photographers, absent the features that most easily chronicle their subjects’ personalities, imply them, merely through body language, composition, or lighting. At the time I wrote the post, I was unaware how widespread the practice of faceless portraits had become. In fact, it’s something of a rage. Hmm. The very thought that, even by accident, I could be aligned with something hip, is, by turns, both terrifying and hilarious.
Thing is, photographs, as the famous curator John Szarkowki remarked, both conceal and reveal, and there is nothing about the full depiction of a human face that guarantees that you’re learning or knowing anything about the subject in frame. We are all to practiced at maintaining our respective masks for many portraits to be taken, ha ha, at face value. Cast your eye back through history and you will find dozens of compelling portraits, from Edward Steichen’s silhouettes of Rodin to Annie Leibovitz’ blurred dance photos of Diane Keaton, that preserve some precious element of humanity that a formal, face-on sitting cannot deliver. Call it mystery, for lack of a more precise word.
In the above frame, the subject whose face I myself never even saw gave me something wonderfully human, about reading in particular, but about enchantment in general. She is furiously busy discovering another world, a world the rest of us can only guess at, seeping up from her book. Her entire body is an inventory of emotional textures…of relaxation, attentiveness, of both being in the present and so completely someplace else. Framing her to include the negative spaces of the window, the carpet and the wider bookstore isolate her further from us, but not in a negative way. She wants to be apart; she is on a journey.
My “girl with the flaxen hair” was unaware of me, and I shot furtively and quickly to make sure I didn’t break the spell she was under. It was the least I could do in gratitude for a chance to witness her adventure. Looking back, I think she provided more than enough magic without revealing a single fragment of her face. Seeing is selecting, and I had been given all I needed to do both.
Click and be gone.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVENT PHOTOGRAPHY IS ONE OF THE MOST FORMALIZED MEANS OF MAKING PICTURES, a pure mission where there is usually only one “official” story being told. A happy wedding. A formal ceremony. A tearful farewell. We expect cameras to be more or less pictorial recorders at certain august moments in our lives, and anyone charged with performing that recording task is usually not expected to also serve up interesting or odd sidebars on human behavior along with the certified images we sent them to get. Event photography is not news, and may not even be persuasive human interest. It is a document, and a rather staged and stiff one at that.
But that’s what’s rewarding about being the non-official photographer at an event. It’s someone else’s job to make sure the crucial toast, the first dance, or the lowering of the casket is captured for posterity. Everyone else with a camera is free to do what photography is really about most of the time. There’s little opportunity for interpretation in the “important” keepsake shots that everyone wants, but there’s all kind of creative wiggle room in the stuff that’s considered unimportant.
I recently attended a wedding at which every key feature of the proceedings was exhaustively catalogued, and, about two hours in, I wanted to seek out something unguarded, loose, human, if you will. The image seen here of a bored hired man doing standby duty on the photo booth was just what I was seeking. I don’t know if it’s the quaint arrangement of legs and feet inside the booth or his utter look of indifference on his face as he stoically mans his post, but something about the whole thing struck me as far funnier than the groomsmen’s toasts or the sight of yet one more bride getting a faceful of cake.
I was only armed with a smartphone, but the reception hall was flooded with light at midday so the shot was far from a technical stretch. The image you see is pretty much as I took it, except for a faux-Kodachrome filter added to give it a bit of a nostalgic color wash, as well as counteracting the bluish cast of the artificial lighting. I also did some judicious guest-cropping to cut down on distraction.
Taking pictures at someone else’s event is a great gig. No expectations, no “must have” shots, and you don’t even have to care if you got the bride’s good side. Irresponsibility can be relaxing. Especially with an open bar.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT STARTED OFF AS WHAT IS CURRENTLY REFERRED TO AS A FAIL: I was clicking away throughout the park areas in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza, trying to make some kind of epic composition out of the beautiful Bailey Foundation near the war memorial arch. It features several heroic figures standing on the prow of a ship, under which can be seen several mythical denizens of the deep including Neptune himself. It’s a strong piece of sculpture, crowning a plaza that was designed by the great Frederick Law Olmstead, the mastermind behind Manhattan’s Central Park, and I should have been able to do something with it. Something.
Problem with the fountain is the water itself, which, instead of a wonderfully flowing cascade is something between a Jacuzzi shower head and a resort sprinkler system. Its renders the statuary nearly impossible to get in focus, and sends refracted rainbows and hotspots dancing gaily into your lens. Suddenly the impulse of a moment is a day’s work, and, just as I was beginning to check this particular world wonder off my to-do list, in moved the people you see here.
I don’t shoot weddings but the group you see here was, in fact, a shoot of a wedding, something else altogether, since there is a more relaxed dynamic than will ever be present during an actual ceremony. Photographically, rehearsals are more fruitful than actual play performances, and, in that vein, wedding prep holds more pictorial potential, for me, than weddings with a capital W. There is a looser feel, an air of celebration that somehow gets starched out of the final product. Do I stand here? You want me holding the flowers? Shouldn’t the tall people be at the back? Best thing of all, these folks were already taking direction from their “official” photog, so I was the last thing on their mind. There’s no better role at a wedding than that of The Invisible Man.
My glorious fountain had been reduced to a prop, which means the wedding party saw its potential, as I had. The difference is, they gave me what I hadn’t been able to find for myself.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
The mystery isn’t in the technique. It’s in each of us.
THE AMERICAN PHOTOGRAPHER HARRY CALLAHAN , author of the above quotation, knew about the subject of mystery, especially as it regarded women. Make that one woman, namely his wife Eleanor, who posed for Callahan’s camera for sixty-three years in every kind of setting from abstracts to nudes and back again, providing him with his most enduring muse.
I know exactly how he felt. Because I feel the same way about my own wife, Marian.
Interpreting and re-interpreting a single face over time is one of the best ways I can imagine to train your eye to detect small changes, crucial evolutions in both your subject and your own sense of seeing. And Marian has given me that gift during our time together, as her features seem, to me, to be an inexhaustible source of exploration. It’s a face that is equal parts tenderness and iron resolve, a perfect balance between joy and tragedy, a wellspring of sensations. It is a great face, a great woman’s face, and a fascinating workspace.
Working as I always am to make her relax and forget herself when I am framing her up, I have long since abandoned the practice of announcing that I was going to take her photograph. There is never any posing or sitting. I approach her the way I would a stranger on the street. I wait for the moment when her face is in the act of becoming, than sneak off with whatever I can steal. Sometimes it takes a little more stealth than I am comfortable with, but my motives are simple; I don’t want the mechanics of photography to block what is coming from that face.
Phone conversations are my best friends, as they seem to magically suspend her self-consciousness and her awareness of the schmuck with the camera. And every once in a while, in viewing the results, she bestows my favorite compliment:
“That one’s not too bad…”
For praise like that, I’ll follow a face anywhere. Because the mystery isn’t in the technique.
It’s in all of her.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS SPEND HALF THEIR LIVES TRYING TO PUT AS MUCH INFORMATION INTO THEIR IMAGES AS POSSIBLE, and the other half trying to remove as much as practicable. Both efforts are in service of the telling of stories, and both approaches are dictated by what a particular photograph is trying to convey.
Sometimes you need the cast of The Ten Commandments to say “humanity”. Other times, just a whisper, an essence of two people talking carries the entire message. That’s where I wound up the other day…with one woman and one very young boy.
Their shared mission was a simple one: hooking up an iPhone Facetime visit with an aunt half a country away. Nothing dramatic, and yet plenty of story to fill a frame with. Story enough, it turned out, for me to get away with weeding out nearly all visual information in the picture, and yet have enough to work with. Time, of course, was also a factor in my choice, since I would be losing a special moment if I stepped into a dark hall and spent precious moments trying to mine it for extra light.
In a second, I realized that silhouettes would carry the magic of the moment without any help from me. What would it matter if I could see the color of my subjects’ clothing, the detail in their hair, even the look on their faces? In short, what would I gain trying to massage an image that was already perfectly eloquent in shadow?
I exposed for the floor in the hall and let everything else go. There was plenty of story there already.
I just had to get out of its way.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE SEEMS TO BE TWO SETS OF RULES WHEN IT COMES TO CANDID PHOTOGRAPHY.
It seems size does matter.
Let me explain.
The physical dimensions of cameras are an unspoken code for the comfort level we extend to the photographers behind them. This may go back to the very first days of the medium, when all cameras were obtrusively large and obvious. Getting your picture “took” was a formal, intentional thing, and that bulky machine was there to record something permanent, important. Contrast that with the appearance , at the end of the 19th century, of the Kodak Brownie, the first genuine “everyman” camera. Small. Personal. Informal. Most of all, non-threatening.
Jump to the present day and the pronounced size difference between compact cameras and DSLRs, a distinction which still signals whether a photomaker is perceived as friend or foe. “Friend” is the guy who quickly snaps a picture of you and your friends blowing out birthday candles with his cute little Fuji or iPhone. “Foe” is more likely the guy taking time to frame a shot while hiding his predatory face behind a big scary Nikon….since he’s the “serious” photographer, thus less trustworthy. Is he after something? Is he trying to catch me doing something stupid, or worse, actually revelatory? Is he trying to imprison my soul in his box?
This binary reaction….good camera, bad camera…is deeply rooted in our collective DNA. It’s understandable. But it’s illogical.
Seriously, consider the twin assaults that digital media and miniaturization have launched on the concept of privacy in recent decades. Ponder the sheer ubiquity of all those millions of new “friendly” little phones. Contemplate the invasion represented by the indiscriminate, relentless posting of giga-hunks of previously personal moments on social networks, then tell me how the presence of more formal, “foe” cameras represents anything close to the same level of risk or exposure. And yet it is the purse-sized camera that is regarded in public places as benign, while the DSLR is far more likely to be rousted by mall cops acting as self-appointed foto sheriffs.
I’m not saying for a moment that there shouldn’t be civility, decency, respect and restraint practiced by photographers who are, however briefly, entering the personal space of strangers. That’s just common sense. I always feel horrible when I think my presence has caused my subjects to cringe or twitch. However, I think it’s time that, for candid photography, there be a single set of rules on the concept of comfy versus confrontational.
- Kodak Brownie Reimagined as Vintage iPhone Dock (iphonesavior.com)