By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE EASIEST THINGS TO LEARN ABOUT IN PHOTOGRAPHY, apparently, is what you’re doing wrong, or so a casual stroll through the Googleweb would suggest. The internet is lots of things, but starved for opinions it ain’t, and so one of the fattest search yields you’ll find online consists of lists, endless in number, on how we are falling short as shooters. You may have sought them out yourself: “Ten most common mistakes”, “the beginner errors everyone makes” “twenty things not to do with your pictures” and so on into the night, rosters of failure and shame compiled by everyone from prominent pros to the village idiot. Actually, that’s unfair. Likely the village idiot is having too much fun taking photos to worry a lot about whether he’s doing it right. As a lifelong village idiot, I can attest that it takes one to know one.
Many of the sins, both venial and mortal, that make up these “to-don’t” lists are of a purely technical nature, such as picking the right aperture or making sure that you haven’t posed a subject in such a way as to make it appear that a hibiscus is sprouting out of the top of his head. Surprisingly, there are fewer suggestions about composure…what makes it stark or busy, what makes it fail to engage or confusing to “read”…than you’d suppose. Almost none of these lists actually address ideas or motivation. And so I mainly regard all such lists with a bit of an arched eyebrow, for the simple reason that they are so very practical. Practical and art are not often on speaking terms.
Orson Welles, a directorial virgin when he arrived in Hollywood to make Citizen Kane, was told by his cinematographer Gregg Toland that there was nothing about shooting a picture that couldn’t be taught in a weekend. Welles’ verdict: Toland was right. Still photography is similar: the mechanics of merely getting a picture into the box are not like the procedures for splitting the atom: much of the moves we make to make an image are but variations on the moves we’e always made, and even without formal instruction, digital has made the learning curve so short that you can muster (if not master) the basics in a few days. It’s what to do with all those technical tips that separates the men/women from the boys/girls, and the endless online (or printed) to-don’t lists don’t even address that amidst all their edicts on lighting and lenses. Because they can’t. Because it can’t be taught like the steps of changing your oil can be taught. It can be learned, but only from yourself. Certainly, if you can’t see, you can still shoot. It just won’t matter that you did, that’s all.
The reason arbitrary rules don’t work with art is because art works best when rules are broken. If all we had to do with a camera was faithfully record light and dark, we would eventually, with practice, all have the same level of excellence. But we don’t. And we can’t. Sometimes a picture just works, despite some line judge saying that it’s too dark, too blurry, or too busy. And if a picture does not transmit your passion to someone else, then all the technical excellence in the world can’t make it connect any better. Why don’t all the do-and-don’t lists talk about motivation, or intention, or just the habit of shooting mindfully? Because that is a matter of mystery beyond measurement. A picture is built, not taken. It happens within the eye and mind of the shooter, and sometimes leapfrogs over all the correct techniques to arrive at a result that is too personal to be contained in a rule book.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
OBVIOUSLY, OUR CURRENT DILEMMA ISN’T THE FIRST TIME PHOTOGRAPHERS ACROSS THE WORLD have been fixated on walls. Wars, natural disasters, imprisonment, confinement of any kind present unique challenges of access and opportunity for shooters. Isolation is often the barrier between story and storyteller. If only we could see around, past, under, we could complete our narrative. But the Great Hibernation we are all undergoing at present is a little different. Separating inside from outside is one thing. Separating each of us from all of the rest of us is another kind of isolation altogether.
Our imaginations can fire fantasies about things we can, for the moment, not depict directly. When memory and speculation fail, those of us who are physically hemmed in head for the windows, those finite little tele-screens that open onto at least a portion of the greater world. What are the neighbors up to? Are the blossoms out? Is the mailman coming today? Does the world look, in any way, normal?
And then there are those windows that open to an airshaft, a blank wall, or alleys ( which are, themselves, windows of another kind). In my house, I have one such “dead” window, which, normally, is only used as a light filter, as it’s framed in thick louvers designed to let in illumination even as it keeps the midday Arizona heat out. The louvers only come wide open when additional light is needed for a room that acts as a default natural-light studio of sorts. Thus, most of the time, the fact that it delivers a particularly worthless view is simply forgotten.
But a few days ago, I wanted to see that view, to feel it as a metaphor or a link to everyone else for whom being able to see out their windows is, in some ways, worse than confinement. A tease. Information without value. Here in the southwest, many residential homes deliberately hide their side and back yards from view with masonry barriers. We are so wall-oriented that the things really become invisible. We learn not only not to care about what they conceal but about them as concealers. But that’s the way our world typically works.
Somehow, then, maybe out of an attempt at solidarity with all the other stranded wall-gazers in this Weird New World, I wanted to make a picture of what it feels like to look out upon nothing, to have the world walled in, and then walled in beyond that. The fisheye lens allowed me to frame the louvers and the sill in the same image in a way that made the opening narrow even as it was strangely wide. Barriers and photographers make lousy companions. We always want them all down, even they conspire to keep us ever within. Maybe that’s a kind of definition of art.
And maybe I’ve just been in the house too flaming long.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MOST OF THE FORMAL TRAINING IN PHOTOGRAPHIC PORTRAITURE rightly emphasizes the eyes, those so-called “windows of the soul”, and it’s hard to argue with their weight as indicators of the inner mind. But, in reality, every facial feature can be eloquent in conveying that which comprises the individual: love, fear, hate, happiness…whatever mix of outward cues that connote personality in a photograph. And it’s also true that, generally speaking, one’s face is a more reliable identifier of traits than, say, an arm or an ankle. However, portraits are loaded with information that occurs from the neck down as well, and a good deal of it can be mined for solid indicators of just who it is we’re looking at. And while we concede that most of us would never deliberately cut the top off a subject in everyday practice, (as seen here) doing so, at least for this exercise, illustrates just how much data can be left to work with when we, in a sense, lose our head.
Clothing, regalia, body language, even something as basic as color…all these come ripe with codes about the life of the individual under consideration, and can be as valuable in portraiture as the face itself. Now, the idea of recommending that you re-examine your favorite portraits without considering their facial information is not to convince you to choose someone’s suit or hand over their face, but to increase our consciousness of what besides the face can amplify and deepen our sense of the people we photograph. I have seen many images where the depth of field was so narrow that, from the eyes outward, most of the face is largely softened, with everything else outside that narrow radius so blurred as to yield virtually no information. And, yes, that approach works wonderfully in many instances. Still, I am the very last person to propose any ironclad rule that always works or never works, since I believe that absolutes have no place in art. Every case must be considered separately.
So long as people are much more than merely their faces, I believe that everyone who works in portraiture should cultivate the habit of looking at every subject as a unique mix of elements, resulting in a range of pictures where sometimes the face is everything, or is sometimes just a thing among others, and occasionally is of no importance at all. The eyes may be a vary reliable window to the soul, but there are always other kinds of eyes, other kinds of windows.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN DISCUSSING THE UNIQUE WAY PHOTOGRAPHERS “SEE” THE WORLD, we often describe the process rather like the development of a muscle: work it, flex it, watch it become tougher and more responsive with each “rep”: repeat as necessary.
But lately, in looking at the general viewpoint that informs my own work, as well as the singular visions that seem to define a “style” for many others, I think we may be looking at the whole phenomenon a little backwards.
Instead of moving progressively toward some eventual destination of “seeing”, as if it’s a mountain top we hope to scale and plant a flag on, maybe the idea of a “photographer’s eye” is more internal, more zen if you like.
Maybe all the formative forces of our lives, including our raw experiences, our philosophical stance, and other stampers of individual personality, have already decided what our “eye” or viewpoint is. Perhaps what keeps us from seeing effectively with that eye is all the noise, distraction, and input from outside sources. Perhaps we arrive at our first camera with a clear windshield, knowing, on some inner level, how we view the world. And perhaps that pristine glass is obscured by the litter and smears of everything outside ourselves that serves to block our view. Maybe, just maybe, every photographer already has an innate knowledge of how he/she regards the world, and what kind of images support that view….if we can just keep the outside world from cluttering and occluding it.
Another way to express this condition might be to imagine ourselves as wearing a tilted blindfold, which is too askew to completely block our vision, but seriously compromises the quality of what we see. Under this idea, any real restoration of our inner eye must include the complete excising of that blindfold. And we approach that result through photography.
Testing these ideas takes a little honest introspection. Look at your own work over a protracted stretch of time. Aren’t there certain consistencies that emerge in the pictures you regard as the truest? It might be something very elemental, such as a love of landscapes, that perpetually re-asserts itself, despite the fact that you “shoot everything.” It might be a mood or a belief that recurs in your visual stories. You might be given to commentary, or celebration, or abstraction. Whatever features your “eye” has, it may have always been so, as a measure of your essential self, with your pictures becoming more and more effective the more you get out of your own way. In my own case, for example, I tend to see beauty or poetry in man-made objects to the same degree that others see in the natural world. Certainly I would never turn down the chance to snap a stunning sunset, and yet, in architecture, in design, or merely in the random arrangements of light and shadow, I can more persuasively argue for beauty than if I were to shoot a thousand roses a day for a thousand years. Some would use the above image to argue that I value things over people, but, to me, things make the case for people, and vice versa.
I also have a hard time deliberately creating something ugly, even in the cause of journalism or documentation. At some level I simply refuse to believe that the world is a horrible place, although I must often depict the horrible things within it. And so it is for you: that is, photography is also a self-assertion of some kind…..not a viewpoint that you are trying to acquire, but one which you are constantly struggling to refine and purify. That is, you already have a photographer’s eye. Now, you need to spend the rest of your life keeping garbage from flying into it or otherwise clouding your very trustworthy and personal vision.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FACES ARE A LOT LIKE SKIES ON A DAY OF WIND-DRIVEN OVERCAST, with emotions sweeping swiftly across their features, alternatively lightening, darkening, producing bursts of color and dusks of shadow, all in the space of a few seconds. The mood changes that play upon our faces from moment to moment are so far-reaching that, in a static medium like still photography, we often feel we cannot create a single image that “tells all” about even the most familiar people in our lives. There are times when more than one feeling is layered over others, with only one state of mind captured in a single frame.
Or so I used to believe.
As stated in previous pages of this small-town newspaper, my parents have had both the great good luck and the jarring challenge of living very close to the century mark. With geography separating us from each other most of the time, the ticking of the clock adds a fearful urgency to my attempts to photograph them in what is essentially their ninth inning. As to how I can shoot them, formal sittings are largely a thing of the past: both are well beyond forced posing, having said “cheese” more times than the entire population of Wisconsin, leaving me to maintain a constant vigil for the unguarded, and potentially revelatory, moment. And that’s where a latter-day gift of sorts has burst onto the scene. Far from the emotionally simple “happy Dad”, “sad Mom” pictures that were emblematic of their earlier years, I now see their faces as aggregations, multi-level combinations of several emotions all registering in the same moment. It’s as if their features have become one of those plexiglass “how it’s made” models of a complex airplane that shows all of the craft’s inner workings at once, or, in simpler terms, as if my camera had been transformed into a CT scanner.
One very effective ignition point for seeing this layering in my father, for example, comes when he is consuming what we will lightly call The News Of The Day. One need not comment on specific issues to recognize that the present world is a very complicated place, and that, when you are ninety, it’s tough not to filter everything through decades of comparable experiences. In watching Dad watch the world these days, I can simultaneously see the many versions of him that I’ve learned to recognize throughout the years. Curiosity? Certainly, but also consternation, hope, bewilderment, sadness, wisdom, and, to a greater and greater degree, resignation. The world is racing forward, not quite yet without him on board, but certainly nowhere near the front of the parade. And since I trail him in age by twenty-three years, I have not yet seen all that he has seen, but I certainly feel a version of his own feelings of accumulation, even from my more limited lookout point above life’s battlefield. The sheer weight of all those feelings is fully one-third stronger in him than in me, but my own legacy of sensations has taught me to detect (and hopefully capture in my box) stories that say much more about his inner mind than just “happy” or “sad”. His face, and that of my mother’s as well, is now more than just familiar: it’s prophetic. I try to see what he and she are teaching…..a very strange, elegant and sometimes terrifying tapestry. Still, even though the view is often obscured by tears, I will never blink or look away. This is a premium seat I occupy now, and I have paid handsomely for the privilege of sitting here.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE ACT OF PUBLISHING A PHOTOGRAPH is roughly equivalent to a lawyer’s closing argument, in that it is an attempt to persuade, to sell an idea. To make his own “case”, a photographer must be fearlessly certain of what he is trying to say, a process that begins with the conviction that what he has frozen in an exposure is the truth, because his eye is a reliable narrator. Lying eye, lying result.
The development of the photographer’s eye is one of two parallel tracks on the road to truthful images, the other being technical mastery. The challenge, then, for the photographer, is in narrowing the gap between what the camera captures and what the eye contends is the essence of the picture. Bear in mind that, between photographer and camera, only one of those things has an imagination. You have to tell the camera what to see in such a way that, as a mere technical measuring device, it has no choice but to obey.
John Szarkowski, the legendary director of photography at the New York Museum of Modern Art and a great shooter in his own right, expressed perfectly the problem that occurs when the eye and the hand are not on the same wavelength:
No mechanism has ever been devised that recorded visual fact so clearly as photography. The consistent flaw in the system has been that it recorded the wrong “facts”: not what we “knew” was there, but what had appeared to be there.
Long story short (and isn’t about time I tried one?) : don’t blame the camera when your vision isn’t realized in the final frame. Either you need a better vision, or a better way of setting up the shot so that the camera can’t help but deliver it. If you don’t turn on the water, the best hose in the world can’t put out a fire.
Stand in front of the court and make your case.
Show us what you see.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE ARE SEVERAL LANGUAGES OF HUMAN BEHAVIOR that are truly universal, experiential tongues for which no translation is neither possible nor necessary. The visual language of photography is one. Music is certainly another. Both have the ability to cross cultures, continents, and generations.
Almost since its arrival, the universal language of the visual has worked to capture the raw energy of the musical….attempting, even, to try to track that energy to its human source, the exact junction where the personality directs and guides the voice of the instrument. For some photographers, this energy is in the sweaty, furrowed brow of a Miles Davis, his lips laboring over a lyrical line in a dark club. For others, it may be the skyward arch of Jimi Hendrix’ wrist as it tears free from a Stratocaster. For me, the magic is in human hands.
Hands are the tools through which musicians translate yet another language, that which starts in the brain and flows through to keys, pipes, buttons, strings. Fingers shape song, modify moods, and dictate terms to other musicians. They wield batons, transfer a composer’s wishes to paper. They signal, they hint. Hands are both the original maestros and the humblest servants of music. That qualifies them as wellsprings of visual drama, and where there is drama, there are pictures.
Of course, not all drama need be, well, dramatic. The unspoken linkage between musicians, even in small, simple gatherings such as the tight Irish quintet seen here, turns all those hands into a dance company: cues emerge: signals move from singer to soloist: and, if we’re lucky, photographs track all that transmission, that silent language, that unspoken eloquence.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE FIRST EMOTION I EXPERIENCE IN LOOKING AT GREAT COMMERCIAL PHOTOGRAPHERS’ WORK, is, of course, the awe that vision and talent naturally elicit. The second emotion, although I’m not proud to say it, is something akin to old-fashioned, green-eyed envy, given that so many of the world’s best images are, no surprise, taken from the world’s best vantage points. National Geographic, The Audubon Society, NASA, and hundreds of amazing journalists take our breath away not only for what they shoot, but for where they shoot it. Theirs is the stuff of Pulitzers and mass circulation. They literally make the shots seen ’round the world.
But there is, in all this camera envy, a spark of hope for the rest of us. Consider: not all of us can create great work even, by being in the right place at the right time. We also have to be the right people to make a shot eloquent, even if we’re standing at the edge of momentous events or breathtaking views. Yes, sadly, many of us won’t be sent by our editor to the sites with the greatest potential, or have enough liquidity to venture to them on our own dime. Most of us won’t be across the street for those moments when the world changes.
But here’s the deal: we do control the way we approach the places that we can get to. We can be the difference between a mundane and a miraculous image, even if the subjects we cover might escape everyone else’s glance. And we can re-imagine, through an angle, a viewpoint, a sensibility, something that’s been thought to be “photographed to death”, and harvest something fresh from it. Our cities, our daily routines, our most familiar mile markers need not have a single, “official” identity in photographs. Where we stand, what we choose to say, transforms even the most well-trod material. The street corner in the image at the top has mostly been seen or photographed at street level. Did I find something new in shooting it from an eighth-story window? And if I didn’t, could someone else?
Cameras, even the most expensive ones, don’t create beauty. Events, no matter how momentous, don’t guarantee stunning images. It’s the eye at the viewfinder, and the brain behind it, that determines whether a picture speaks.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THANKSGIVING WEEK USUALLY DEPUTIZES WRITERS OF EVERY VARIETY to generate lists of things the author is thankful for, everything from baby puppies to the designated-hitter rule, all enveloped in the gold glow of gratitude. Photographers are usually not enlisted for these rosters of wonderfulness, but, if you make pictures long enough, you will, no doubt, have a list of very specific items that warm your heart.
Over a lifetime, I have generally been grateful for photography’s consistent ability to excite my senses, challenge my thinking, and create the addictive sensation known as surprise. I’m grateful that George Eastman introduced the first practical roll film, taking photography from the hands of the few and giving it to the world at large. I’m glad that images have found languages with which to speak to people, languages that surpass the power of speech. I’m glad that photographs stitch together links across every gulf of human experience. And I’m thankful for the pictures that enraged me to action, that gladdened me to tears, that encouraged me to make more pictures of my own.
I’m grateful for the men and women who have created the greatest visual art form the world has ever known. You can sub your own gallery of gods, but mine includes Ansel Adams, Berenice Abbott, Garry Winogrand, Alfred Stieglitz, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Gordon Parks, Margaret Bourke-White, Edward Weston, Robert Frank, Edward Steichen, Robert Capa, Diane Arbus, Weegee, Walker Evans, Julia Margaret Cameron, W.Eugene Smith, Dorothea Lange, Richard Avedon, Annie Liebowitz, and, most importantly, the millions of invisible eyes and hands out there cranking, out there living by one unshakable credo: Always be shooting.
I thank the photo gods for images of my parents, first as sweethearts in the aftermath of World War II, then as newlyweds in the ’50’s, then as Mommy and Daddy in the Space Age, and presently as the great long-distance runners of romance, still mad for each other at 66 years and counting. I thank fortune for the bunny ears and hamming and mugging and bright toothy giggles of my own children, frozen now in their newness and their hunger for life. And I incidentally thank luck for Kodachrome, quick-charging batteries, fast lenses and a few moments in which I swung around, just in time, and got the shot.
The camera is many things…charmer, chronicler, narrator, witness, liar, magic wand. It gains all these special powers in the hands of people. Photographs are measures of who we are, what we care about, and what we want time to say about us after we’re gone.
Lots to do, lots left to attempt.
Lots to be thankful for.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I REALIZE, MORE THAN EVER, THAT THE BULK OF MY OWN PHOTOGRAPHIC WORK has been an attempt to tell human stories while using remarkably few humans to convey them. I always seem not to have a true style at all, just a string of endless experiments that either add or detract from my overall skill set. And yet, if there is any “signature” in my work, it seems to be in using objects, or atmospheres, to illustrate what makes (or made) people feel. The everyday “sets” on which the actors of life play their parts. The oddest thing about my photographs is how many times, over a lifetime, the sets are allowed to speak for the actors, without the actors present.
I shoot empty rooms, but rooms where I feel the weight of years of bustling, traffic, conversations, meetings. I shoot solitary objects on tables, but objects that I imagined were touched, treasured, and otherwise served to measure daily life. I’m not adept at staging people as models or actors in images, but I try to react to settings, see people in them, and show their absence as a kind of presence through these things, these places.
It doesn’t always work. And, as you all have, I’m sure, I often worry about whether I’m off on the wrong track, lost, kidding myself. When a photograph connects with someone, I’m still surprised, even shocked. Street photography, which I greatly admire, is, for most, the act of seeing important bits of drama or tension between people. I take the visual measure of what they build, what they use, even what they abandon, and try to draw their portraits that way. The actual participants may, or may not, be part of those drawings.
Like I say, it doesn’t always work. What I may see as a moment of contemplation or a quiet narrative may strike others as cold, remote. I never mean it that way, since that’s not how I see the world. To my mind, you can either show a child opening a Christmas present, measuring his first flash of joy, or you can photograph the box and wrapping paper a moment later, after the toy has been removed and only the potential of the thing is left behind, like a latent fragrance.
I like trying to detect those fragrances, those lingering essences, the vapors of vanishing potential. Like Chief Dan George observes in Little Big Man, sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn’t.
But, oh, man, when it does……
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CHILDREN AND ANIMALS OPERATE IN WORLDS DIFFERENT ENOUGH FROM OUR OWN that they merit a special viewpoint when being photographed. Composing an image designed to enter into their special realities should facilitate that process, giving the viewer the idea that he has gained entry to their realms. The camera’s eye needs to seem to inhabit their actual living space.
I’ve felt for a long time that the formal K-Mart studio method of making a child’s portrait is stiflingly inadequate for plumbing that young person’s real animating spirit. And as for pets, the sheer daily deluge of animal snaps posted globally are served just as badly from over-formalizing or staging. Intimate insight into the self can’t be achieved by generic backdrops, tired props or balanced flash alone. If anything, such systems push the real child further away from view, leaving only a neutral facade in place of the true human. Personality locks eyes with the lens in unguarded, not choreographed, moments.
I’m not saying that no preparation should go into animal or child pictures. I am suggesting that a “snapshot mentality”, backed by lots of shooting experience, can yield results that are more organic, natural and spontaneous. Shoot in a moment but apply what you have learned over a lifetime.
Even the simple practice of shooting on your subject’s level, rather than shooting like a grownup, i.e., downhill toward your subject, can create a connection between your line of sight and theirs. If your kids and kitties are on the floor, go there. Another simple way to create an intimate feel is to have the child or pet dominate the frame. If there is some other feature of the room, from furniture to other people, that does not rivet your audience’s attention to the main subject, cut it out. Many, many portraits fail by simply being too busy.
And, finally, catch your dog, cat, boy or girl doing something he’s chosen to do. Don’t assign him to play with a toy, or ask him to stand here, here, or here. Wait like a professional, then shoot fast like a snapshotter. The more invisible you become, the less distraction you provide. Looking at a child or pet enthralled by something is a lot more interesting than watching him watch you. If you do happen to lock eyes during the process, as in the case of the rather suspicious house cat seen above, steal that moment gladly, but don’t try to direct it.
Don’t draw your portrait subjects into your energy. Eavesdrop on theirs. The pictures will flow a lot more naturally, and you won’t have to work half as hard.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I CAN STILL HEAR MY LITTLE LEAGUE COACH’S VOICE, cured into a coarse hum by too many years of Lucky Strikes, hitting me in the back of my skull as I stood shakily in the batter’s box. If he had told me once, he had told me a thousand times: don’t try to hit every ball that comes across the plate. You swing like a rusty gate, he would tease me, or don’t eat their garbage. The main message, and one that I only intermittently received: wait for your pitch.
On those rare occasions when I didn’t fish wildly in the air for every single thing that sailed in from the mound, I took great encouragement from his voice saying, good eye. Strangely, I had earned praise for essentially doing nothing, but, hey, I’d take it.
Coach sometimes comes to mind when I view the results of some of my hastier photographic decisions.
There is, for photogs, a very real translation of “wait for your pitch”, and it’s more important in the digital era because it’s such an easy rule to adhere to. Simply, you must keep shooting long enough to get the frame you saw in your mind. There can be no, “I’ve already taken a lot of frames”, or “they’re waiting for me to finish up” or “maybe today’s not my day for this shot.” First of all, it’s your picture. If you want it, take it. Secondly, there is no such thing as “a lot of frames”. There is only enough frames. If clicking one more, hell, ten more, will get you your shot, then do it. There is no phantom film counter warning you that you only have four more Kodachrome exposures left.
I am preaching this particular commandment all too loudly today because I am kicking myself for not living up to it recently. In the top frame, I got every element of a quaint old Amtrak ticket window that appealed to me, including the patterned skylight, the bored agent, the square arrangement of the Deco-ish counter space, and the left and right details of an old archway and a marble wall. Everything except the intrusive passersby on the left. They are sadly out-of-sync with the time-feel of the rest of the shot, and, had I not felt that I had nailed the general exposure and feel of the image, I might have waited for them to move out of frame, and gotten everything I wanted.
But I didn’t. I settled for “close enough”, and moved on to the next subject. Later, in post-production, I could certainly crop my squatters out, but at the cost of the overall composition. I now had to make do with what was left. I managed to reframe for another square shot that included nearly all the same elements. But it was “nearly”, not “all”. And “all” is what I could have had if I hadn’t tried to swing at the wrong ball. You can’t make a good shot out of a bad shot, and when an opportunity is gone, there isn’t a piece of software in the world that can make a miracle out of what’s not in your camera.
Wait for your pitch.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PART OF THE EVOLUTION OF A PHOTOGRAPHER’S EYE is the imparting of new importance to things we have forgotten to see, those everyday objects that line or border our rituals and our daily to-and-froms, but which gradually are rendered invisible because our gaze is focused elsewhere. We fix upon the subway train that we have to catch, but miss the miniature tales buried in brick, steel, rust, entrances and exits. We’ve been down this street a million times, and always pause to peer in the window of, in order, the bakery, the newsstand, the Chinese take-out joint. Across the same street are a dry cleaner, a watch repair shop, and a storefront cathedral. We have never seen them.
Photography involves extracting stories where others see a blank slate, but that means first training ourselves to constantly re-see the things we believe we “know”, only to find that there are stunning revelations mere inches away from those known things. It’s the hardest habit to cultivate, this revealing of new layers in what we assume is the familiar. And yet it’s really the fresh blood that rejuvenates our art when it’s gone anemic.
One trick I try more often than I used to is to pause, after entering a building, to look back at the other side of that entrance…in other words, the view I would see facing me if I were using that entrance as an exit. It’s a very simply thing, but frequently there’s something fresh that presents itself, in something I believed I knew all about.
The above image comes from such an exercise. It’s taken just inside the main entrance to the Brooklyn Public Library, which, as you can see, has a great Art Deco grille of storybook characters over the door. But that’s just as you walk in. Pay equal attention when you’re walking out, and you see a strange bird looming over the entrance (now your exit). But not just any bird. It is, in fact, a rescued statue which once graced the main lobby of the long-departed Brooklyn Eagle newspaper, out of its old context as a symbol of high-flying journalism, but now a reminder of one of the city’s best voices. Best of all, the late afternoon sun projects the silhouettes of the storybook grille onto the eagle and the adjacent wall in an unearthly display of shadow. It’s worth looking back at. Or I could say I am always looking forward to looking back at it.
When looking for something new to photograph, seek out the places in which you’ve seen it all. You’ll never be happier to be proven wrong.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AN ELOQUENTLY DETAILED ANALYSIS OF A POWERFUL PHOTOGRAPH, which I read in a recent edition of the New York Times, convinced me anew that, apart from a few compositional basics, no one really knows what makes an image “work”. Beginners love to sing the praises of the Rule Of Thirds as a guideline for composition, and, likewise, critics rhapsodize about Golden Ratios as a way to dissect how powerful elements occupy space in great photos. But the dirty little secret about composition is that there is no dirty little secret, no Laws of Gravity or Relativity that, if consistently obeyed, will yield consistent excellence.
This doesn’t mean that we can’t emotionally identify which pictures have power, as well as those that merely lie there. It merely means that there may never be adequate verbal artillery to reduce those feelings to a law, a handbook, or a credo. We arrive with our cameras at places where there may, or may not be, a picture. Our eye tells us that something important can be extracted, isolated, amplified, re-contextualized. Beyond that, it’s a matter of fate and luck.
Of course, the more we experience what works, the better we are at seeing it in the raw and extracting better and better examples of it. However, every ride of the bucking bronco is distinctly different from all the others. Photography has certain mechanical techniques that can be mastered, certainly, but we can’t learn emotional impact in a class. We can only pour something out into the camera from what is already inside us.
Try to imagine walking up to a chalkboard and reducing your favorite photograph to a series of shorthand symbols reminiscent of a mathematician’s equation. Could anything be more bloodless, more clinical? Critics and analysts sometimes come from the ranks of doers, but many of the very best doers resist the temptation to dissect their art as if it were a lab frog. Henri Cartier-Bresson, the acknowledged Moses of street photography, once recalled that it was seeing another shooter’s best work that made him say, “Damn It!”, grab his camera, and head outside, obsessed with making something of his own that could incite such a reaction.
Photographers seize instinct and emotion in the raw and forge them into a kind of sense-fired steel. Frame a picture with that steel and it will speak a thousand times louder than any mere dissertation.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ALMOST WITHIN MINUTES OF THE INVENTION OF THE CAMERA, we humans countered by inventing the camera face.
You have one. I have one. It’s the layer, the mask, the official story, the press release, the prepared consumer product. And while we often associate the making of a photograph with the creation of a document, a frozen slice of actual reality, that has never really been true, especially when it comes to capturing the raw essence of our fellow homo sapiens. It’s not that we don’t occasionally manage to glimpse the real person within: it’s that such glimpses are anything but easy.
And if our regular life is something of a performance, at least where a camera’s concerned, what of the acknowledged manipulation of an “official” performance….a play, a concert, a naked poetry slam? In such cases, the amount of artifice presented to the camera is amped up even more, so that the actual show may reveal nearly nothing of the person staging it. Total opacity.
It’s enough to make a photographer sneak backstage, minutes before the lights go down and the curtain goes up.
And that’s the kind of performance image I look for. The jangled nerves. The last-minute tunings and scales. The features that betray the anguish of going out there and putting your whole self on approval before strangers. In effect, the story that plays out on faces despite the prep, beyond the skill, behind the mask.
As seen here, the girl hurrying to the stage for her string solo is trustworthy. She’s nervous, a little embarrassed at being late, desperate to hold, onto her music, literally by the skin of her teeth. Above, the string of young people at an amateur fashion show are busier being kids than being pros. Their take on modeling is not cold or detached, although in seconds, out on the catwalk, they will affect that “look”. But now, in this moment, they are friends, co-conspirators, partners in a commonly weird process. They relax. They laugh.
In both cases, these are people. Without the polish, minus the artifice, their striving visible, if just for a second, as our own.
And that’s when the magic happens.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE SKYLINE OF NEW YORK CITY, if you think about it a bit, is almost like a bar graph in steel and stone.
Just as higher and lower bars on a business graph chart the successes and failures of a company or stock, so do the vertical surgings above Manhattan island track the ebb and flow of energy, of the life flow of the most amazing metropolis on earth. And for photographers, the Apple’s skyline is always news. Someone is moving up. Someone else is moving down, or over. There’s always a new kid on the block, and that means that the photographic story of New York must be re-imagined yet again.
New York buildings create context for themselves and for the city at large, as the fresh arrivals jostle in and try to mingle with their more historically landed neighbors. That process is always exciting, but the rebirth of the part of lower Manhattan scarred and scorched by the hateful events of 9/11/01 brings more than just a new crop of jutting profiles. It brings one of the most powerful symbols of resurrection in the modern age. To paraphrase the song lyric, America proved, on that most battered of battlegrounds, that, if we could make it there, we could make it anywhere, and the nation at large stood a little taller with the arrival of the new World Trade Center.
Cameras now idealize that which is already miraculous, and WTC One, visible from anywhere in the city, will create its own photographic history, or, rather, make it irresistible for photographers to try to write it themselves. Postcard views, neighborhood contrasts, abstractions, souvenir snaps…all will be the story and none will be the story, at least not the whole story. New York is always ready for her close-up, but the challenge is always, are you good enough to shoot her best side?
Photographers visit New York to size themselves up in their own bar graph of pass/fail/maybe. Like everyone who ever stepped off a Port Authority bus fresh off the farm, they ask themselves: am I good? According to whom? Compared to what? Can I make something last as I create images of a city that not only never sleeps, but never even slows down?
“Autumn in New York. It’s good to live it again….”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY IS OFTEN A GAME OF INCHES, a struggle in which outcomes vary wildly based on small, rather than large issues. Early photographers learned this the hard way, since their limited gear forced them to innovate composition and exposure with tiny tweaks that slowly but gradually added more refined skill to their work and better performance from their equipment. Ernest Haas’ great quote that a wide-angle lens is just as close as taking three steps backward still holds true. What has changed is that we have a greater tendency to think that we need more tech to make better pictures. That concept, simply, is poppycock.
For years, the option of a zoom lens was out of the question for the average photographer. The consumer-level zooms that existed were often optically inferior to standard or wide-angle glass (as testified to by Annie Leibowitz and other heavyweights), and so composition was acquired by physically closing or widening the actual distance between yourself and your subject. This is not to say that zooms didn’t eventually prove amazing tools, because they have. However, they demonstrate and instance in which tech has automated, and thus eliminated, an extra step of mindful concentration that used to reside solely in the photographer’s brain. This can lead, over time to an over-reliance on the gear to bring everything home, something it cannot ever do.
Learning to simply maximize the effect of whatever you have up front of the shutter is the easiest, and yet most overlooked aspect of many people’s work. We’d spend a lot less time lugging and swapping lenses if we knew how far we could push whatever we’ve got attached at the moment, and, indeed, masters like Scott Kelby, author of the best-selling Digital Photography Book series, has several “why change lenses? hunks of glass like the 18-200mm that can get him through an entire day without a swap. This works because he works a little harder at exploiting everything his gear can do.
Consider the above image. It’s taken at 18mm, but, because I arched the shot upwards, instead of maintaining a level horizon line, I forced the lens to do a little more of what it was originally designed to do….exaggerate dimensions and distances. The development of wide-angle lenses was, after all, pursued by shooters who wanted an enhancement, an interpretation, and not a recording, of reality. As such, the wide-angle in this shot over-accentuates the most prominent feature of this room within the old U.S. Customs building in Manhattan…its amazing murals. It also creates an illusion of vastness, front-to-back, in a room that is already pretty huge. And this is all done by pivoting my head upward about 30 degrees.
The game of inches is the great equalizer in photography between pro and amateur, because it gives the advantage to those who plan the best, see the most, and think the widest. And you don’t need a closet full of geegaws to do that.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
Okay, Wang, I think that’s enough pictures of the parking lot. —Rodney Dangerfield, Caddyshack
IF YOU WERE TO EXPRESS TODAY’S PHOTOGRAPHIC FREEDOM IN TERMS OF FIREPOWER, it would be fair to say that many of us have come to shoot in a somewhat scatter-shot fashion, like someone sweeping a machine gun. Indeed, digital allows us to overshoot everything to such a degree that doing so becomes our default action, because why would you take one picture of your child digging into birthday cake when fifty will do just as well?
Some over-shooting is really what pro photogs used to call “coverage” and is actually beneficial for particularly hard subjects. Awe-inspiring sunsets. A stag at bay. The fiery burst from a Hawaiian volcano. Such subjects actually warrant a just-one-more approach to make sure you’ve thought through every possible take on something that can be interpreted in a variety of ways, or which may be vanishing presently. But that’s a lot different from cranking off four dozen clicks of the visitor’s center at Wally World.
Shooting better isn’t always assured by merely shooting more. Instead of the machine gun technique, we might actually improve our eye, as well as our ability to strategize a shot, by limiting how many total tries we make at capturing an image. My point is that there are different “budgets” for different subject matter, and that blowing out tons of takes is not a guarantee that Ze Beeg Keeper is lurking there somewhere in the herd.
So put aside the photographic spray-down technique from time to time and opt for the single bullet theory. For you film veterans, this actually should be easy, since you remember what it was like to have to budget a finite number of frames, depending on how many rolls you packed in. Try giving yourself five frames max to capture something you care about, then three, then one. Then go an entire day taking a single crack at things and evaluate the results.
If you’ve ever spent the entire day with a single focal length lens, or fought severe time constraints, or shot only on manual, you’re already accustomed to taking a beat, getting your thinking right, and then shooting. That’s all single-take photography is; an exercise in deliberation, or in mindfulness, if you dig guru-speak. Try it on your own stuff, and, better yet, use the web to view the work of others doing the same thing. Seek out subjects that offer limited access. Shoot before your walk light goes on at an intersection. Frame out a window. Pretend an impatient car-full of relatives is waiting for you with murder in their hearts. Part of the evolution of our photography is learning how to do more with less.
That’s not only convenient, in terms of editing. It’s the very soul of artistry.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
T.S. ELIOT ONCE ASKED, POIGNANTLY, ‘WHAT IS THE SOUND OF ONE HAND CLAPPING?‘ as if there could be no lonelier thing in this weary world. However, had he been a photographer, he might also have mused about the sound of one wife sighing, as her husband assures her that “I just need one more shot“, or “you can all go ahead, I’ll meet you at the gift shop.” Such assurances would be enough to send Mrs. Eliot’s one hand clapping T.S. soundly about the ears.
We really do hear the steam escaping from our wives’ ears as we mutter about whether we need a prime lens or a wide-angle for our next masterpiece. We understand that it’s not much fun watching your beloved stare at a pile of junk in a dark alley, pondering whether it all makes a profound statement about the state of the world. We get the fact that you might prefer that we answer your question about whether your mother should come and live with us, rather than mumble, “if I close down to f/11 to get past that glare, I’m gonna lose two stops of light…”
In short, we know what a colossal pain it is to be with someone who constantly hauls around a mad gaggle of gears, gauges, geegaws and gadgets. We even realize that you might have a hard time remembering the last time you saw us walking around on only two legs…..you know, without the tripod.
We stipulate that, sometimes, a hunk of rock is just a hunk of rock, not a canvas on which to mount our genius, just as “a little light reading” to the rest of the world might mean a beach thriller by Robert Crais, not the flash attachment section of the B&H Video catalog. We even admit that it’s a little catty of us to stare across the room at a restaurant and make our one contribution to the table’s conversation with, “look at that stupid guy. He’s not even framing up his shot!”
Yes, ladies, we need to not so much “get a life” as to get a slightly larger, wider one. So, thank you for reminding us that, if we fall off this mountain by stepping back for the perfect composition, we might make orphan our children. Thank you for occasionally filling us in on certain details of said children’s lives, such as their proper names, birthdays, distinguishing features, etc. Thank you for not wincing when we name the family dog Steiglitz. Thank you for not leaving us for dead when we use the foil cover from your best picnic casserole for a makeshift bounce reflector.
Mostly, as in the above scene, we humbly thank you for not seizing the opportunity to dump us and our dratted gear in the nearest abyss.
And then taking a picture of it.
And then laughing, hysterically.
by MICHAEL PERKINS
I SEE MANY, MANY HOMELESS PEOPLE THESE DAYS. Sometimes on
the streets of my home city. More occasionally on the streets of other towns. And every single day, without fail, on every photo upload site in the world. Many of the uploaders think this is “street photography”.
Many of the uploaders need to think again. Hard.
The mere freezing in a frame of someone whose lousy luck or bad choices have placed him on the street is not, of and by itself, some kind of visual eloquence. Not that it can’t be, if some kind of story, or context, or statement accompanies the image of a person driven to desperation. But not the careless and heedless snaps that are, I will say, stolen, at people’s expense, every day, then touted as art of some kind. The difference, as always, is in the eye of the photographer.
Many millions of people have been “captured” in photographs with no more revelatory power than a fire hydrant or a tree, and just catching a person unawares with your camera is no guarantee that we will understand him, learn what landed him here, care about his outcome. That’s on you as a photographer.
If all you did was wait until someone was fittingly juxaposed with a row of garbage cans, a grimy brick wall, or an abandoned slum, then lazily clicked, you have contributed nothing to the discussion. Your life, your empathy, your sense of loss or justice….all must interact with your shutter finger, or you have merely committed an act of exploitation. Oh, look at the poor man. Aren’t I a discerning and sensitive artist for alerting humanity to this dire issue?
Well, maybe. But maybe not. Photographs are conversations. If you don’t hold up your end of it, don’t expect the world to pick up the slack. If you care, then make sure we care. After all, you’ve appropriated a human being’s image for your own glory. Make sure he gave that up for something.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY, IF IT TRULY IS AN ART (and I’m assuming you believe it is), can never get to a place where it’s “done”. There is no Finished, there ain’t no Clock Out, and there shouldn’t be any Good Enough. There is only where you are and the measurable distance between there and where you want to be. And, once you get there, the chains get moved down the field to the next first down, and the whole drill starts over again.
That means that, as photographers, we are always just about to find ourselves uncomfortable, or need to try to make ourselves that way. Standing still equals stale, which, in turn, equals “why bother?” Sure, the first step toward a new plateau always feels like walking off a cliff, but it needs to, if we’re to improve. If your work feels like something you’ve done before, chances are it is. And if a new assignment or challenge doesn’t come from outside yourself, then you’ve got to do something to put the risk back in the process.
You can write your own prescription. Shoot all day with a limited camera. Do everything in b&w. Make yourself compose shots that are the dead opposite of what you believe looks “right”. Use the “wrong” lens for the assignment at hand. Force yourself to do an entire day’s work in the same aperture, shutter speed, or white balance. Just throw some kind of monkey wrench into your routine, before the routine becomes the regular rhythm (spelled “rut”) of your work. The words comfort and create don’t fit comfortably in the same sentence. Be okay with that.
We can’t always count on crazed bosses, tight deadlines or visionary mentors to nudge us toward the next best version of ourselves. Learn how to kick yourself in the butt and you’ll always be in problem-solving mode. That means more mistakes, which in turn means a speedier learning curve. You never learn anything repeating your past successes, so don’t curl up next to them like some comfortable chair. Put it all out there. Make the imperfect day work for you, and pray that there’s another one waiting after that.
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.
It’s the truth. It’s actual. Everything is satisfactual. –lyrics from the Oscar-winning song Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY WAS ERRONEOUSLY BILLED, EARLY IN ITS DEVELOPMENT, as a mere recording of reality. This was, of course, an attempt to characterize the picture-making process as more bloodless, less artistic than painting, which was an interpretation of the world. What early haters of the camera failed to realize, of course, was that photographers were just as selective in their depiction of life as painters, since their medium too, was an interpretation…..of isolated moments, of preferred angles, of temporary actuality.
If you look at individual frames within a strip of motion picture film, it becomes perfectly clear that each still image is a self-contained world, with no way to intuit what has come before a given moment nor what will come next. Thus, no one frame is “reality” but a select sample of it. In daily photography, our choice of angle, approach, and especially light can allow us to create an infinite number of “realities” that only exist in the precise moment in which we see and freeze them.
Let’s look specifically at light. As it’s jumbled in multiple reflections, light is particularly precious to the photographer’s eye, since a captured image may recall an effect that even people within inches of the shooter could not see. In the above photo, for example, this mosaic of reflections inside the vestibule of a high-ceilinged building was visible from several specific positions in the foyer. Move yourself three feet either way, however, and this pattern could not be seen at all. In other words, this photographic “reality” came briefly into existence under the most controlled conditions, then was gone.
John Szarkowski, the legendary director of photography for the New York Museum of Modern Art, dedicates an entire section of his essential book The Photographer’s Eye to what he calls “Vantage Point” and its importance to a mastery of the medium. “Pictures (can) reveal not only the clarity but the obscurity of things…and these mysterious and evasive images can also, in their own terms, seem ordered and meaningful.”
Photography is about viewing all of reality and extracting little jewels from within it.
That’s not mere recording.