By MICHAEL PERKINS
ASK THE AVERAGE PERSON FOR A BRIEF COMPARISON BETWEEN PHOTOGRAPHY AND PAINTING, and you may hear the assertion that, ‘well, photographs are real..”, a statement that reveals the fundamental flaw in our thinking about photographs from their earliest beginnings. Simply because a camera measures and records light (perhaps also because it’s a machine), we’ve come to regard its end product as a literal representation of the world. But no serious examination of what artists have done with the photographic image will support that idea. Photographs are no more real than daubs of pigment, and no more reliable in their testimony.
Photographers twist and torture light and shadow to present their version of the world, not its literal translation. If they worked with top hats and wands instead of Leicas, their audiences would accept, with a wink. that a live rabbit was not actually produced out of the hat’s crown, but was, in fact, a feat of misdirection, of persuasion. The camera, on the other hand, gets far more credit for being faithful to the real world than it deserves. As the old saying goes, a photograph is a lie that tells the truth.
Making any kind of image, the photographer has any number of simple techniques available to him to make the inaccurate seem real, most of it achieved in-camera. Take, for example, the attempt, in the above photo, to create as great a sense of depth as is possible in a flat image. First, the use of a wide 24mm lens will optically exaggerate the distance between the front and back of the scene, nearly doubling the sense of space versus that of the actual room. On top of that, the image is composed with the most severe diagonal possible to pull the eye into its already over-accented dimensions.
As a final touch, the shot is taken at the smallest aperture practicable in the available light, insuring uniform sharpness as the eye looks “into” the scene. The result is a three-decker compound illusion……fairly removed from “reality” and yet suggesting itself to it, much as the rabbit seems to have emerged from the hat. Indeed, with the creative manipulation of the photographic process, you might not need, in terms of reality, either the hat or the rabbit to perform your “trick”. But you can certainly show them both in the shot.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
NORMALEYE PHOTOGRAPHIC PARADOX No.346: You have to think hard about your equipment when you’re not shooting so that you don’t have to give much thought when you are.
Reacting “in the moment” to a photographic situation is often lauded as the highest state of human existence, and, indeed, the ability to see, and do, on the spot, can yield amazing results. But, in that marvelous inspirational instant, the smallest item on your checklist should be dithering about your gear. What it will do. What it can’t do. What you don’t know how to make it do. These are ruminations you run through when there’s no picture making going on.
Simply, the more you know about what you’ve taken to a shoot, the less creative energy will be drained off worrying about how to use it once you get there. You will get to the point where, for a given day’s subject matter, you take the wide lens, of course, or the macro lens, of course, or the portrait lens, of course. You’ll anticipate the majority of situations you’ll be in, and, unless you like driving yourself crazy, you’ll likely select one lens that will just about do it all. But whatever lens you select, you will want to know how much farther you can push it, as well. You know what you generally need it to do, but can it, in a tight spot, do a decent job outside its specialty? The answer is, probably yes.
One of my favorite lenses for landscape work is my ancient Nikkor 24mm f/2.8 prime. Nice and wide for most outdoors subjects, pretty fast for the close and dark stuff, and sharp as cheddar cheese in my most used apertures, especially the middle range, like around f/5.6. Can it do macro work, when I swing my attention from distant mountains to detail on a nearby cactus? Well, yes, within reason.
The minimum near-focus distance for this lens is about ten inches, more than close enough to fill a frame with the trunk of the saguaro with a little spare space to the right and left. I shoot in big files, so even with a post-op crop I preserve lots of resolution, and bang, the wide-angle does a respectable job as a faux macro.
I grew up around amateur race arenas which invited people to haul any old hunk of automotive junk to the track, to be run in so-called “run what ya brung” events. I personally hate to haul my entire optical array out on a project, swapping out glass for every new situation. I’d much rather save my neck and shoulder by calculating ahead of time which lens will do most of what I want, but be able to stand-in for some other lens in special situations. There are usually work-arounds and hidden tricks in even the most limited lenses. You just have to seek them out.
Run what ya brung.
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
SINCE THE 1990’s, THE MOST COMMON BASIC HUNK OF PHOTOGRAPHIC GLASS for new DSLRs has been the 18-55mm wide-angle, dubbed the “kit lens”. It allows beginners to move from landscape-friendly wides to moderate zooms without switching lenses. Depending on how much a given shooter experiments, the kit can allow for a lot of nuanced compositional options between the lens’ range.
If you find yourself shooting at the widest angle most of the time, then you are really using an effects lens, since, at 18mm, the lens is more than wide enough to distort angles and distances in ways that, while dramatic, don’t reflect the way your eyes actually see. This makes for expansive vistas in crowded urban streets and a little extra elbow room for mountain views, but is substantially more exaggerated than focal ranges from 35-50mm, which produce proportions more like human eyesight. However, the focal length you eventually choose has to be dictated by what you care to create; there can’t be any yardstick than that, all people’s opinions off to the side.
I have found a personal sweet spot by going a tad narrower, back to 24mm, and I also work with a dedicated prime lens that will only work at that exact focal length. By trimming back from 18mm, I find the distances from front to back in an image are a little more natural to my eye, and that I still have a yard of room from side to side without ushering in that Batman-type bending of perspective.
For comparison, I have re-shot subjects that I’d photographed at 18mm and found, at 24, no loss in impact. In the images in this post you can see the difference in how the two settings frame up. The composition in the 24 is a little tighter, but, if that’s not wide enough for you, you can simply step back a bit and there’s the same composition you saw in the 18, albeit with a little more normal proportion.
The most important thing with a variable focal length lens is to give yourself the flexibility of being able to get good results all through the focal range, simply to avoid getting too comfortable, i.e., sliding into a rut from always doing everything in the same way. Putting yourself into unfamiliar territory is always a good route to growth, and playing with your gear long enough to know everything it has to give you is the best way to periodically refresh your enjoyment.
When Grandma serves broccoli, you don’t gotta eat and pound-and-a-half of it, but heck, try it. You might like it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MANY OF US WHO BEGAN THEIR LOVE FOR PHOTOGRAPHY IN THE DAYS OF FILM have never really made a total switch to digital. It just never was necessary to make that drastic a “clean break” with the past. Far from it: through the tools and techniques that we utilized in the analog world, we still carry forth viewpoints and habits that act as foundations for the work we produce in pixels. Photography was not “re-invented” by digital in the way that transportation was when we moved from horse to car. It was refined, adding a new chapter, not an entire book.
Digital is merely the latest in a historical line of ever-evolving recording media, from daguerreotypes to salted paper to glass plates to roll film. The principles of what makes a good picture, plus or minus some philosophical fashion from time to time, have not changed. That means that tons of toys from the analog world still have years of life left in them, especially lenses.
Call it a “reverse hack” mentality, call it sentiment, but some shooters are reluctant to send all their various hunks of aged camera glass to the ashcan simply because they were originally paired with analog bodies. Photography is expensive enough without having to start from scratch with all-new components every time a hot new product hits the market, and many of us look for workarounds that involve giving a second life to old lenses. New wine from old bottles.
Some product lines actually engineer backwards-compatibility into their lenses. Nikon was the first and best company to spearhead this particular brain flash, making lenses for over forty years that can be pressed into service with the latest Nikon body off the production line. In my own case, I have finally landed a Nikon 24mm f/2.8 prime, not from current catalogues, but from the happy land of Refurbia. It’s a 1970’s-era gem that is sharp, simple, and mine-all-mine, for a fifth of the cost of the latest version of the same optic.
My new/old 24 gives me a wide-angle that’s a full stop more light-thirsty than the most current kit lenses in that focal length, and is also small, light, and quick, even as a manual focus lens. And it can be argued that the build quality is better as well. Photography is about results, not hardware, so how you get to the finish line is your business. And yet, sometimes, I must admit that shooting new pictures with legendary lenses feels like photography, as an art, is building on, and not erasing, history.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE EVOLUTION OF ART IS SOMETIMES ABOUT SUBTRACTION RATHER THAN ADDITION. We reflexively feel that the more elements we add to our creative projects…equipment, verbiage, mental baggage…the better the result will be. I believe that, as art progresses, it actually becomes more streamlined, more pure. It becomes a process of doing the most work with the simplest, and fewest, tools.
That’s why I am a big fan of the idea of a “go-to” lens, that hunk of glass that, whatever its specific properties, answers most of your needs most of the time. Again, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a prime or a zoom or a fisheye. If it delivers more of what you need in nearly any shooting situation, then there’s little reason to keep seeking happiness by lugging extraneous gear and spending extra time swapping lenses. And, after you have been shooting and editing for a while, you will know what that piece of glass is. As a personal example, the 35mm prime lens used in the above image, which can shoot everything from moderate macro to portraits to landscapes, stays on my camera 95% of the time.
Mikey’s Golden Rule # 3,456: The more you know your equipment, the less of it you need.
Consider several advantages of becoming a go-to kind of guy/gal:
Working consistently with the same lens makes it easier to pre-visualize your shots. I believe that, the more of your picture you can see in your mind before the click of the shutter, the more of your concept will translate into the physical record. Knowing what your lens can do allows you to plan a picture that you can actually execute.
You start to see shooting opportunities that you instinctually know will play to your lens’ strengths. You can even plan a shot that you know is beyond those strengths, depending on the effect you want to achieve. Whatever your choices, you will know, concretely, what you can and can’t do.
You escape the dire addiction known as G.A.S., or Gear Acquisition Syndrome. Using the same lens for every kind of shot means you don’t have to eat your heart out about the “next big thing”, the new toy that will magically make your photography suck less. Once you and your go-to are joined at the hip, you can never be conned by the new toy myth again. Ever.
Finally, without the stop-switch-adjust cycle of lens changing, you can shoot faster. Sounds ridiculous, but the ability to just get on with it means you shoot more, speed up your learning curve, and get better. Delays in taking the pictures you want also delay everything else in your development.
There are always reasons for picking specific lenses for specific needs. But, once you maximize your ability to create great things with a particular lens, you may find that you prefer to bolt that sucker in place and leave it there. In photography as with so much else in life, informed choices are inevitably easier choices.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOMEWHERE BETWEEN THE END OF THE FILM ERA AND THE DAWN OF THE DIGITAL AGE IN PHOTOGRAPHY, there was a profound change in what camera manufacturers defined as a “starter” lens for new owners. Many shooters, including your humble scribbler, have wondered just why an 18-55 “kit lens” zoom became the glass that was included with the purchase of a digital SLR, when the baseline lens for film shooters had most typically been a 35mm prime. This is especially puzzling since the kit lenses sold by many makers are optically inferior to a prime in several key respects.
Primes, or “normal” lenses, have one focal length only, and so cannot zoom at all, but they out-perform many of today’s zooms on sharpness, clarity, speed, aesthetic blur (or “bokeh”), and portability. Their proportions are more similar to those seen by the human eye (thus the “normal” tag) and so do not create distortion at, say 24mm, a range at which some banding creeps into a zoom at the same focal length. They also will not exaggerate front-to-back distances as seen in a super wide-angle, meaning that an 8×10 room does not resemble a bowling alley.
So what does a wide-angle zoom bring to the party? Not much, beyond the convenience afforded by zooming out with the twist of a barrel, filling your frame in seconds but, ironically, making you less mindful of the composition of your shot. The few extra seconds needed to compose on a lens that can’t zoom means that you act more purposefully, more consciously in the making of an image. You, and not the lens, are responsible for what’s included or cut.
But let’s assume that you want the kit lens for its wide-angle. This is also no problem for a prime lens. Yes, it’s as wide as it will ever be at a single focal length, but you can change what it sees by just stepping backwards. A 35mm prime is plenty wide depending on where you stand. It’s not like you can’t capture a large field of view from left to right. Just place yourself in the right place and shoot.
Yes, there are times when physical restrictions dictate “jumping the fence” by using your zoom to take you where your legs won’t go, but you can count those occasions on half the toes of a frostbitten foot. Look at the above shot. What else do you need in the shot that would require a wide-angle zoom to capture? And if the zoom can only open to f/3.5 at its widest aperture, why not use the prime and gain the ability to go all the way to f/1.8 if needed?
Here’s the deal: if you can walk to your shot and use a better, less expensive piece of glass once you get there, why use a zoom? If you can avail yourself of remarkable sharpness and fill your frame with everything you need, free of distortion, and gain extra speed, why use the wideangle? Huh? Huh? Riddle me that, Batman.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN THE EARLY 1950’s, AS TELEVISION FIRST BLINKED INTO LIFE ACROSS AMERICA, storytelling in film began to divide into two very clearly defined camps. In theatres, desperate to retain some of the rats who were deserting their sinking ships to bathe in cathode rays at home, movie studios went for stories that were too big to be contained by the little screen, and almost too big for theatres. You remember the wider-than-thou days of Cinemascope, VistaVision, Todd-Ao, Cinerama and Super-Panavision, as well as the red-green cardboard glasses of 3-D’s first big surge, and the eye-poking wonders of House Of Wax, Creature From The Black Lagoon and Bwana Devil. Theatres were Smell-O-Vision, True Stereophonic Reproduction and bright choruses of Let’s Go Out To The Lobby sung by dancing hot dogs and gaily tripping soda cups. Theatres was Big.
The other stories, the TV stories, were small, intimate, personal, compact enough to cram into our 9-inch Philcos. Tight two-shots of actors’ heads and cardboard sets in live studios. It was Playhouse 90 and Sylvania Theatre and The Hallmark Hall Of Fame. Minus the 3,000 Roman extras and chariot races, we got Marty, Requiem For A Heavyweight, and On The Waterfront. Little stories of “nobodies” with big impact. Life, zoomed in.
For photographers, pro or no, many stories can be told either in wide-angle or tight shot. Overall effect or personal impact. You can write your own book on whether the entire building ablaze is more compelling than the little girl on the sidewalk hoping her dog got out all right. Immense loads of dead trees have been expended to explore, in print, where the framing should happen in a story to produce shock, awe or a quick smile. I like to shoot everything every way I can think of, especially if the event readily presents more than one angle to me.
The release of the new iPhone 6, which dropped worldwide today, is a big story, of course, but it consists of a lot of little ones strung together. Walk the line of the faithful waiting to show their golden Wonka ticket to gain admission to the Church of Steve and you see a cross-section of humankind represented in the ranks. Big things do that to us; rallies, riots, parties, flashmobs, funerals….the big story happens once a lot of little stories cluster in to comprise it.
Simply pick the story you like.
Remember, just like the phone, they come in two sizes.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHEN FACED WITH A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT APPROACH TO OUR PHOTOGRAPHY, the crabbier among us are liable to utter one of two responses. Both sound negative, but one could be positive:
Response #1: “I’d never do that!” (Emphatically negative. Discussion over. You will not persuade me.)
Response #2:”Why would I want to do that???” (Possibly as close-minded as response #1, but the person could be asking a legitimate question, as in, ‘show me the benefit in doing it your way, because I can’t imagine a single reason why I should change’.)
When first reading about the street photography technique of “shooting from the hip”, I was a definite response #2. Wasn’t going to slam the door on trying it, but failed to see what I would get out of it. The phrase means just what you’d think it does, referring to people with obvious cameras who do “street” work, shooting with the camera hanging at waist level, never bringing the viewfinder up to their eye. Subjects don’t cringe or lock up because you don’t “seem” to be taking a picture, and thus your images of them are far more unguarded and natural.
Now, suggesting this to a person who has never even owned a camera that didn’t have a viewfinder is a little like asking him to try to take pictures from the inside of a burlap sack. Kinda makes my inner control freak throw a bratrum (a brat tantrum). Think of it from my point of view. If I shoot manually all the time (I do) and if I need my viewfinder like Linus needs his blanket (cause, hey, I’m a tortured and insecure artist), then squeezing off a shot without even knowing if it’s in frame is, to say the least, counter-intuitive (French for “nuts”).
So there you have your honestly expressed Response #2.
Some things that finally made it worth at least trying:
It don’t cost nothin’.
I can practice taking pictures that I don’t care about. I wouldn’t be shooting these things or people even with total control, so what’s to lose?
Did I mention it don’t cost nothin’?
Shooters beware: clicking from the hip is far from easy to master. Get ready to take lots of photos that look like they came from your Urban Outfitter Soviet Union-era Plastic Toy Hipsta Camera. You want rakish tilt? You got it. You like edgy, iffy focus? It’s a given. In other words, you’ll spend a lotta time going through your day’s work like the Joker evaluating Vicki Vale’s portfolio (….”crap….crap….crap….” ). But you might eventually snag a jewel, and it feels so deliciously evil to procure truly candid shots that you may develop an addiction to the affliction. Observe a few basics: shoot as wide as you can, cause 35s, 50s and other primes won’t give you enough scope in composition at close range: go with as fast a shutter speed as the light will allow (in low light, compromise on the ISO): if possible, shoot f/5.6 or smaller: and, finally,learn how to pre-squeeze the autofocus and listen for its quiet little zzzz, then tilt the camera just far enough up to make sure everyone has a head, and go.
At worst, it forces you to re-evaluate the way you “see” a shot, since you have no choice but to accept what the camera could see. At best, you might see fewer bared fangs from people snarling, “hey is that a $&@*! camera?” inches from your nose. And that’s a good thing.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE NARROW STREETS OF LOWER MANHATTAN WERE NEVER DESIGNED TO ACCOMMODATE the claustrophobic jam of commerce, foot traffic and skyscrapers that have characterized the neighborhood since the early 20th century. I should back that up and acknowledge that, for some locals, the streets of lower Manhattan were never designed,period. New York’s growth has always come in rangy spurts and jolts, much like a gangly adolescent that shoots upward and outward overnight without any apparent plan, and yet, those unruly explosions are also what delight the photographer’s eye and make the city an inexhaustible laboratory for technique.
Shooting down the slits that pass for side streets and alleys in lower Manhattan is enough to make even the most seasoned native feel like he or she is being shut up in a tomb, but I am drawn to going even further, and over-emphasizing the extreme dimensions peculiar to the area. That, for me, means shooting with as wide a lens as I have handy, distortion be damned. Actually, it’s distortion be welcomed, since I think that the horizontal lines of the buildings create a much more dramatic lead-in for the eye as they race far away from the foreground. And since ultra-wide magnify front-to-back distances, the bigness and closeness of the city is jacked into a real exaggeration, but one that serves my purpose.
It helps to crouch down and tilt up when composing the shot, and to make sure that you don’t crop passersby out of the shot, since they will add to the drama even more as indications of scale. I have certainly gone too far more than once and rendered rectangular buildings into futuristic trapezoids, but the aim of each image will dictate what you’re going for. Also, in many of these shots, I decide, after much dithering, to choose monochrome over color, but I always shoot the originals in color, since they respond better to re-contrasting once they’re desaturated.
The magic about Manhattan is that no camera can ever tame her or show all her beauty and/or ugliness. It’s somthing of a fool’s errand to try to take the picture of NYC. Better to take a picture you like and add it to the ongoing story.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ANYONE WHO’S MADE A ROAD TRIP CAN TELL YOU THAT THE DESTINATION IS OFTEN FAR LESS ENJOYABLE THAN THE JOURNEY, a truth that also applies to photography. The best things result from the little surprises at the side of the highway. You’re fixated on your oh-so-holy “plan” and all the wonderful things you’ll see and do in executing it. But photography is an art of opportunity, and to the degree that you embrace that fact, your work will be broader, richer, looser.
This is now a real source of excitement for me. I still go to the trouble of sketching out what I think I’m going to do, but, I’m at least quietly excited to know that, in many cases, the images that will make the keepers pile will happen when I went completely off message. Yes, we are “officially” here today to shoot that big mountain over yonder. But, since the two people I met on the approach path to said mountain are in themselves interesting, the story has now become about them. I may or may not get back to the mountain, and, if I do, I may discover that I really did not have a strong concept in my bagga trix for making anything special out of it, and so it’s nice not to have to write the entire day off to a good walk spoiled.
Specific example: I have written before that I get more usable stuff in the empty spaces and non-exhibit areas of museums than I do from the events within them. This is a great consolation prize these days, especially since an increasingly ardent police state among curators means that no photos can be taken in some pretty key areas. Staying open means that I can at least extract something from the areas no one is supposed to care about.
The above image is one such case, since it was literally the final frame I shot on my way out of a museum show. It was irresistible as a pattern piece, caused by a very fleeting moment of sunset light. It would have appealed to me whether I was in a museum or not, but it was the fact that I was willing to go off-script that I got it, no special technical talent or “eye”. Nabbing this shot completely hinged on whether I was willing to go after something I didn’t originally come for. It’s like going to the grocery store for milk, finding they’re out, but discovering that there is also a sale on Bud Light. Things immediately look rosier.
Or at least they will by the third can.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AMONG THE GROUPS INVITING FLICKR USERS TO POST PHOTOGRAPHS OF A CERTAIN THEME OR TYPE, there is a group called, “This Should Be A Postcard”, apparently composed of images that are so iconically average that they resemble mass-produced tourist views of scenic locales. The name of this group puzzles me. I mean, if you called it, “Perfectly Ordinary, Non-Offensive and Safe Pictures of Over-Visited Places”, people would write you off as a troll, but I’d at least give you points for accuracy. It’s hard to understand why any art would aspire to look like something that is almost deliberately artless.
And still, it is perceived as a compliment to one’s work to be told that it “looks just like a postcard”, and, I swear, when I hear that remark about one of my own images, my first reaction is to wipe said image from the face of the earth, since that phrase means that it is (a)average, (b) unambitious), (c) unimaginative, or (d) a mere act of “recording”. Look, here’s the famous place. It looks just like you expect it to, taken from the angle that you’re accustomed to, lit, composed and executed according to a pre-existing conception of what it’s “supposed” to be. How nice.
And how unlike anything photography is supposed to be about.
This conditioning we all have to render the “official” view of well-known subjects can only lead to mediocrity and risk aversion. After all, a postcard is tasteful, perfect, symmetrical, orderly. And eventually, dull. Thankfully, the infusion of millions of new photographers into the mainstream in recent years holds the potential cure for this bent. The young will simply not hold the same things (or ways to view them) in any particular awe, and so they won’t even want to create a postcard, or anyone else’s version of one. They will shudder at the very thought of being “on the nose”.
I rail against the postcard because, over a lifetime, I have so shamelessly aspired to it, and have only been able to let go of the fantasy after becoming disappointed with myself, then unwilling to keep recycling the same approach to subject matter even one more time. For me, it was a way of gradually growing past the really formalized methods I had as a child. And it’s not magic.Even a slight variation in approach to “big” subjects, as in the above image, can stamp at least a part of yourself onto the results, and so, it’s a good thing to get the official shot out of the way early on in a shoot, then try every other approach you can think of. Chances are, your keeper will be in one of the non-traditional approaches.
Postcards say of a location, wish you were here. Photographs, made by you personally, point to your mind and say, “consider being here.”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
BIRTHDAYS HAVE BECOME SOMETHING OF A CONUNDRUM AT MY AGE. The annual ritual of looking yourself over, and thereby taking some kind of critical inventory of personality debits and credits, has become a little like finding an old favorite shirt in a drawer. On one hand, it’s horribly out of fashion, and may not fit so well anymore. On the other hand, you had some great times in it, and it was really well made….I mean look at the quality in the fabric…….
And so, after a few loving looks, back in the drawer it goes.
There are so many yardsticks to apply to a life, so many ways to mark distance run. You can produce either smiles or sighs with any of them. Of course, I’d like to weigh less. Of course, I’d like to know more. And when it comes to photography, of course I’d like to be able to invoke a thirty-year mortality extension clause, in the hope that maybe, just maybe, I’d eventually learn to see as I should, before shuffling off to The Undiscovered Country.
In recent years, I’ve used self-portraits as some kind of mile marker on myself, either as an index of technique, or maybe just a detailed document of wear and tear. It’s somewhat related to the annual torture that used to be School Picture Day, except that there’s no creepy guy to give me a lame nickname and hand me a plastic pocket comb. Another key difference is that I can keep shooting until my eyes are open and my cowlick behaves.
So, anyway, tomorrow, I’ll waddle my way past “GO” and collect my $200. Someone will once again stick something with a lit candle in front of me, and, once again, I will experience that all too human mix between gratitude and regret that makes humanity the ultimate sweet-and-sour entrée. I’ve been around from Brownies to Instamatics to Polaroids to iPhones, and it’s been a privilege to behold it all. And, if I’ve produced even one visual document to suggest to anyone else how marvelously grand the world is, then it’s been a pretty good run. It’s nice to be around.
Hey, did they take taxes out of this $200????
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PERHAPS IT’S MY FATHER’S LOVE OF THOREAU AND EMERSON. Maybe it’s a late-in-life turn toward the meditational. It most certainly is due, in part, to a life-long adoration of all things bookish. Whatever the exact mix, I regard library space as far more sacred than the confines of any church or chapel. Many find their faith flanked by stained glass; I get centered in the midst of bookshelves.
And if libraries are my churches, reading rooms are the sanctuaries, the places within which the mind can be channeled into infinite streams, and where, incidentally, perfect mental quiet can translate into visual quiet. And that, for me, means black and white images. Color can be too loud, proud, and garish, wherein monochrome is the language of privacy, intimacy, and a perfect kind of silence. You might say black is the new quiet.
Inside reading rooms, the faces and clothing of the patrons seems, well, irrelevant to the mood. They have all come seeking the same thing, so compositionally, they are, themselves, all alike, and seeing them in silhouette against the larger details of the room seems to enhance the feeling of reverent quiet. As for composing, letting the room’s massive window take up 3/4 of the frame kept the readers as a small understatement along the bottom baseline of the shot. And, since I was reluctant to ruin the atmosphere of the room, or risk my “invisibility” with more than one audible click to betray me, I chose to go for broke with a single black & white image. I exposed for the cityscape beyond the window, to guarantee that the readers would be rendered as shapes, and that was it.
Having successfully purloined a treasure from within the Church Of The Holy Book, I proceeded to beat it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
BORN INTO A PAINTER’S WORLD, PHOTOGRAPHY NATURALLY INHERITED THAT DISCIPLINE’S BIAS TOWARD SHOWING THE WORLD “AS IT IS“, and, in fact, the first fifty years of photographic images seem to be in a neck-and-neck race with painting for the best rendering of the world at large. Then the 20th century kind of dope-slapped humanity’s collective sense of “reality”, as a world war, the onrush of science, and the rise of secular thought combined to question what the hell we needed with reality, anyway. The arts were shaken to their foundations, and photography and painting spiraled off onto wild new side roads. All bets for what defined a “picture” were off.
That’s not to say that photography has remained visually unbound through the decades. It almost acts like the flow and ebb of the surf. Photos surge toward pure documentation, then pull back into pure effect. They roll forward into an absolute deconstruction of the real world, then clamber back into the safety of literal pictorialism. One day we’re trying to recreate a wilderness landscape with perfect fidelity; the next day we’re reducing all “subjects” moot, reducing everything to shape and light.
I have had to spend many years getting comfortable with abstractions in my photography. It’s not like I don’t have ideas that wander far from the visual mainstream. If anything, I’ve had to learn to trust those visions, to stop worrying about whether they have “value” versus some rigid, if invisible,standard. While some shooters started with an absolutely open attitude toward the camera, pointing, framing and living completely by whim or instinct (the Instagram and Lomo kids of my Stone Age), I was absolutely, unwaveringly serious about arranging or capturing things as I literally saw them. It was a very clenched approach, even if it did teach me the physics of the medium. I had to learn to hold things very tightly before learning to let anything go.
And it took a very long time.
The great gift of the digital era is that many “accounting” issues (how much film do I have left? where can I go to get these processed? do they sell my kind of film in this end of town?) are just plain gone, and, with them, a little of the constipated approach that they imposed on me. At my age, it no longer matters a damn how long I shoot, how many times I “fail”, or who does or does not choose to anoint the results. There are no teachers or parents left to show off for, no competition with anyone except myself. I am free to use surfaces as straight lines or use distortion as a design element.
The truth speaks with forked tongue: in some ways I am glad that I am no longer young, since I have finally lived long enough to “age” into my photographic niche. And it also makes me sad that I am no longer young, because I really want to run with this ball, and I realize that Time might knock my legs out from underneath me before I make it all the way down the field. Still, we are here, and here is where we have to concentrate our energy. It’s the only control we have. Or, in the words of Edna St.Vincent Millay:
My candle burns at both ends; It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends— It gives a lovely light.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS ALL HATE THE TASK OF SHOOTING OVERLY FAMILIAR SUBJECTS. The famous. The iconic. The must-stop, we’ll-be-getting-off-the-bus-for-ten-minutes “sights” that decorate every postcard rack, every gift store shelf, in their respective cities. The Tower, the Ruins, the Once-Mighty Palace, the Legendary Cathedral. Things that have more pictures taken of them by breakfast than you’ll have taken of you in three lifetimes. Scadrillions of snaps, many of them composed for the “classic” orientation, an automatic attempt to live up to the “postcard” shot. It’s dull, but not because there is no fresh drama or grandeur left in a particular locale. It’s dull because we deliberately frame up the subject in almost the same way that is expected of us.
There must be a reason we all fall for this.
Maybe we want everyone back home to like our pictures, to recognize and connect with something that is easy, a pre-sold concept. No tricky exposures, no “arty” approaches. Here’s the Eiffel Tower, Uncle Herb, just like you expected to see it.
On a recent walking shoot around D.C.’s National Mall, snapping monument upon monument, I was starting to go snowblind with all the gleaming white marble and bleached alabaster, the perfection of our love affair with our own history. After a few miles of continuous hurrahs for us and everything we stand for, I perversely looked for something flawed….a crack in the sidewalk, a chipped tooth on a presidential bust, something to bring forth at least a little story.
Then I defaulted to an old strategy, and one which at least shakes up the senses. Photograph parts of buildings instead of the full-on official portrait of them. Pick a fragment, a set of light values, a selection of details that render the thing new, if only slightly. Take the revered and venerated thing out of its display case and remove its normal context.
The Lincoln Memorial proved a good choice. The basic shot of the front looked like just a box with pillars. A very, very white box. But shooting a bracket of three exposures of just the upper right corner of the roof , then blending them in an exposure fusion program, revealed two things: the irregular aging and texture of the stone, and the very human bit of history inscribed along the crown: the names of the states, with the years they came into the union below them. All at once something seemed unified, poetic about Abraham Lincoln sitting inside not a temple to himself, but a collection of the states and passions he stitched back together, repaired and restored into a Union.
The building had come back alive for me.
And I didn’t even have to shoot the entire thing.
follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE HAS BEEN A LOT OF MENTION, OF LATE, OF THE PHENOMENON KNOWN AS “PHOTOBOMBING“, the accidental or intentioned spoiling of our perfect Kodak moments by persons inserted into the frame at a crucial instant. Whether they block the bride’s face, eclipse Grandma’s beloved puppy, or merely pop up annoyingly behind the cute couple, they, and the images they ruin, are one of the hottest posting sources along the photo-internet galaxy right about now.
But fate photobombs us every day, and often drops a gift out of the sky, and into our pictures. The two-fold trick is to (a) be ready to improvise and (b) be grateful for the chance for something altogether different from what we originally conceived.
Happened to me several weeks ago. Total accident, since the thing I shot in the moment was not what I had started out for at all. Real simple situation:an underground walkway from one low-lying section of a city park to another, the sidewalk taking a short cut under a bridge. Overhead, six lanes of unheeding street-level traffic. Below, a concrete tunnel of sorts, with sunlight from the park illuminating either open end.
Oh, and the grate. Should mention that a section of the street overhead was, instead of solid roadbed, an open-pattern, structural steel grid, with dappled geometrics of light throwing a three-sided pattern of latticed shadows onto the side walls and floor of the tunnel below. Nice geometry. Now, I wasn’t looking to shoot anything down here at all. Like the chicken, I just wanted to get to the other side. But I had my wide-angle on, and a free light pattern is a free light pattern. One frame. A second, and then the bomb: a jogger, much more acquainted with this under-the-road shortcut than me, crossing from over my right shoulder and into my shot. Almost instinctively, I got her in frame, and relatively sharp as well.
Not content to have caught the big fish of the day, I took the opposite angle and tried again to recoup my “ideal shot”, minus the human element. But something had changed. Even so, I still needed a gentle nudge from Fate to accept that I had already done as well as I was going to do.
My battery died.
I limped home, then, during my upload, found that what I had been willing to reject had become essential. I wish it was the first time I’ve had to be taught this lesson.
But I’d be lying.
Photobombed by circumstance.
And grateful for it.
follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.