By MICHAEL PERKINS
GIVEN THAT THERE’S AN ELEMENT OF CHANCE in even the most carefully planned photographs, it’s tempting for me to think of some pictures as pre-existing, like a piece of fruit that might well hang on a tree forever unless you happen to walk by and pick it. People sometimes refer to such images as being “captured”, but maybe “harvested” is a better word.
That would explain the photographs that you don’t, or can’t plan, the ones that are unbidden but also undeniable. Of course you don’t ever have to take a picture, but under the right circumstances it can sure feel that way.
Which leads me to this image. I don’t understand a thing about it except that I had to take it. I can’t offer a thrilling backstory about its creation because I wasn’t its “creator”. I likewise can’t offer a thoughtful analysis or provide the illuminating context that makes its message shine forth. Honestly, this picture isn’t “about” anything, despite the fact that I’d love to spin you a thrilling tale, some revelatory saga that reflects my sheer genius. But eventually, the picture isn’t anything but, well, this picture.
In an instant, as happens to everyone, I had a second to decide to buy or not buy, and I bought. God knows why. We all love to think that everything in art happens for a reason, as part of a plan. We can often shy away from “pure” or “absolute” photography, but, if we’re honest, we can’t explain all of the images we harvest/capture/ stumble onto. We love to think we’re always in charge of our process.
But guess what……
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY TIME I SEE SOMEONE working on a jigsaw puzzle, I can’t help but think that they’re missing all the fun. The idea of the project is, of course, to assemble enough pieces of a scene that it becomes recognizable. 200 pieces in: some kind of structure. 400 pieces in: looks like it’s made of iron, triangular maybe. 600 pieces in: oh, yeah, the Eiffel Tower!
But, whereas a picture puzzle is solved when the image looks complete enough, my favorite kind of photography centers on how few pieces of the puzzle can be supplied and still have the image communicate to the viewer. Formalists might call this minimalism: art curators might label it cubism: holy men in flowing robes might use the term zen. I just think of it as reducing pictures to the smallest number of components needed to convey ideas.
In fact, many photographic subjects actually present themselves in a kind of broken pattern right out of the gate, challenging us to create images from the spotty data they let through. For example, views through partially blocked windows, such as the one at the top of this page, in which what remains readable behind the darkened door and window framings, is more than enough to sell the message pizza shoppe.
For me, having everything spelled out to the Nth degree in a photograph is beyond boring. It’s much more interesting to engage the viewer in a kind of partnership in which he is looking on purpose and I am trying to maximize the power of my pitch, going as far beyond the obvious as I can while not letting the picture fly apart. The first minute I’ve snapped enough pieces into the puzzle to suggest the Eiffel Tower, I’m ready to leave the last 300 pieces in the box.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
…..through his nightmare vision, he sees nothing…..blind with the beggar’s mind, he is but a stranger to himself –Winwood/Capaldi
GRINNING, FRIENDLY LIARS: that’s what most of us are when offering up a socially amenable mask for public conception as a photographic portrait. It’s the facial equivalent of “putting your best foot forward”, an official version of someone who possesses our features but is as different from our selves as, to quote Twain, lighting is from the lightning bug. So who should know that genuine person better, or can capture its reality more accurately than we ourselves? Right?
We (the ultimate authority on us), are usually among the least trustworthy of narrators on our favorite subject. Many a memoir is merely a selective reconstruction of one’s past, leaking credibility at every seam. So why should our photographic self-portraits be any more reliable? We believe that we can reveal things outsiders can’t see, that our “real” face can only be shown by our own hand….that the others don’t really “get” us. But what actually happens with the insane new flood of selfies washing over the digital shores is that we merely substitute one “correct” face…the one we give to other photographers…for another, no less crafted, no less artificial. We are still trying to concoct an image that we feel is fit for public consumption. And we invariably fail.
This is hardly a new trap. Photographers have been trying to tell their own facial stories for over two centuries, sure that their interpretation of their secret selves will succeed where other chroniclers fall short. But the best self-portraits are still abstractions, momentary samples of our personality, never the personality in full. Ironically, we might make pictures of our selves that we prefer over those others make of us. Perhaps they are technically better, more deliberate, more flattering, and so forth. And maybe we like the selves we shoot better because they actually conceal what we want to remain hidden, whereas the stranger’s eye is, in fact, too penetrating for our comfort.
Contemporary solutions to this legendary conundrum know no limit. Every shooter has his or her own approach to a statement of self in an image, with some choosing to deliberately camouflage or hide themselves, and other concocting very formalized creations that mock the idea of recognition while seeming to be “real”. In Jackie Higgins’ wonderful book on alternative techniques Why It Does Not Have To Be In Focus, she argues that “faces rarely reflect the inner workings of minds”, suggesting that “there is no such thing as the unified self.” The take-home: you can’t get it right, this business of knowing and showing your own face. Does that mean the quest is unattainable? Sure.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY DEALS IN FEELINGS, those inexact sensations of the heart that we try to capture or evoke in our visual messaging. Some subjects, such as war or celebration, convey emotions with such immediacy that we are really only acting as recorders, with the associative power of our minds providing much of the detail. Pictures of loss or celebration, such as the aftermath of a disaster or the birth of a new life, can be fairly simple to convey. What you see is what the thing is. For subtler regions of the brain, however, photos must use, if you will, a different vocabulary.
Newbie photographers are trained, to a a great degree, to seek the sharp image, to master focus as a technical “must”, but, as we vary the kinds of messages we want to convey, we change our attitudes about not only sharpness but most of the other “musts” on the beginner’s list. We learn that we should always do a certain thing….except when we shouldn’t. It’s worth remembering that some of the most compelling photos ever published were, according to someone’s standard, “flawed” in some way.
News shooters have long since learned that the emotional immediacy of a picture, along with its raw “news value”, outweighs mere technical precision by a country mile. The rules get bent or broken because, in their most perfect application, they may actually dull the impact of a given image. Thus, many a journalist has a Pulitzer on his wall for a picture that a beginner might regard as “wrong”. And the same goes for any picture we may want to make where an emotion simply must be conjured. Mere visual accuracy can and will be sacrificed to make the picture ring true.
Asa personal example, I find that images that plumb the mysteries of memory often must stray from the arbitrary standards of so-called “realism”. When you work in the realms of recall, nostalgia, regret, or simply fond remembrance, a certain fluid attitude toward the niceties of sharpness and exposure may actually sell the idea better. Memory is day-dreaming, after all, and, in a dream, as Alice found in Wonderland, things look a bit…off. Dimension, delineation, depth…all these properties, and more, morph with the needs of the desired image. “Real” sells some things superbly. Emotion, however, as earlier stated, demands a language of its own.
The baby shoes shown in the image above are shot in uneven sharpness to suggest the gauzy nature of the memories they may evoke. Likewise the color is a bit washed-out, almost pastel, since a full, vibrant range of hues may seem less dreamy, more rooted in reportorial reality…which we don’t want for a picture like this. Rule-breaking ensues simply because nothing, no rule, no standard, is as important as making the picture work. If it doesn’t speak to the viewer, then the fact that it’s technically superb means nothing.
As Mr. Ellington sez, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY OFTEN RE-DEFINES OUR PERCEPTION OF THE FAMILIAR, re-contextualizing everyday objects in ways that force us to see them differently. Nowhere is this more effective than in close-up and macro photography, where we deliberately isolate or magnify details of things so that they lose their typical associations. Indeed, using the camera to cast subjects in unfamiliar ways is one of the most delightful challenges of the art.
Product developers are comfortable with the idea that “form follows function”, that how we use a thing will usually dictate how it must be designed. The shapes and contours of the objects in our world are arrived at only as we tailor the look of a thing to what it does. That’s why we don’t have square wheels. The problem with familiar objects is that, as long as they do what they were designed to do, we think less and less about the elegance of their physical design. Photographers can take things out of this chain of the mundane, and, in showcasing them, force us to see them in purely visual terms. They stop playing the piano, and instead look under the lid at the elegant machine within. They strip off the service panel of the printer and show us the ballet of circuitry underneath.
It’s even easier to do this, and yields more dramatic results, as we begin to re-investigate those things that have almost completely passed from daily use. To our 21st-century eyes, a 1910 stock ticker might as well be an alien spaceship, so far removed is it from typical experience. I recently viewed a permanent wave machine from a beauty parlor of the 1930’s, sitting on a forgotten table at a flea market. It took me two full minutes to figure out what I was even looking at. Did I snap it? You betcha.
The study of bygone function is also a magical mystery tour of design innovation. You start to suss out why the Edisons of the world needed this shape, these materials, arranged in precisely this way, to make these things work. Zooming in for a tighter look, as in the case of the typewriter in the above image, forces a certain viewpoint, creating compositions of absolute shapes, free to be whatever we need them to be. Form becomes our function.
The same transformation can happen when you have seemingly exhausted a familiar subject, or shot away at it until your brain freezes and no new truth seems to be coming forth. Walking away from the project for a while, even a few hours, often reboots your attitude towards it, and the image begins to emerge. As Yogi Berra said, you can observe a lot just by watching.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE OLDEST CONSISTENT ROLE OF PHOTOGRAPHY IS AS NARRATIVE, its storytelling ability borrowed from painting but later freed, as painting would also be, from representations of mere reality. Before the beginning of the 20th century, photographs held moments, chronicled events, froze people in time. Over the next hundred tumultuous years, every part of the narrative process for all arts would be challenged, shattered and reassembled several times over. We pretend there are still rules that always apply to what an image says to us, but that is really only sentiment. Some photographs simply are.
What they are is, of course, both fun and infuriating for creator and audience alike. We wonder sometimes what we are supposed to think about a picture. We take comfort in being led a certain way, or in a set sequence. Look here first, then here, then here, and draw such-and-such a conclusion. But just as music need not relate a story in traditional terms (and often does not) the photograph should never merely present reality as a finished arrangement. The answer to the question, “what should I think about this?” can only be, whatever you find, whatever you yourself see.
I love having a clear purpose in a picture, especially pictures of people, and it has taken me years to make such images without the benefit of a deliberate road map. To arrange people as merely elements in a scene, then trust someone else to see what I myself cannot even verbalize, has forced me to relax my grip, to be less controlling, to have confidence in instincts that I can’t readily spell out in 25 words or less.
What are these people doing? What does their presence reveal beyond the obvious? Is there anything “obvious” about the picture at all? Just as a still life is not a commentary on fruit or a critique of flowers, some photographed people are not to be used in the service of a story. They can, in the imaginations of viewers, provide much more than that. Photography is most interesting when it’s a conversation. Sometimes that discussion takes place in strange languages.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOME OF YOUR MOST FORWARD-THINKING DEVELOPMENT AS A PHOTOGRAPHER CAN OFTEN OCCUR on days when you’ve planned exactly…nothing. You may have noticed that you produce an occasional masterpiece in situations where there was “nothing to shoot” or you “didn’t have anywhere special to go.” Phrases like I was just wandering around are sometimes used by people describing how their favorite images wound up inside the camera.
What I’m saying is that, if making something out of nothing is the classic definition of creativity, go find yourself some nothing.. and shoot it.
There’s a strange paradox at play here. When you are photographing something that truly “matters”, your concentration is on the subject, not your technique, almost as if the thing will record itself if you just faithfully point the camera. Kids’ birthday parties or a view of El Capitan come “ready to eat” in a way, and you don’t fester about doing anything bold on your side of the equation. The task becomes, basically, not to screw up….hardly a recipe for excellence. When the subject matter is incomplete, however, or, more importantly, meaningless to you, the work is much harder and more mindful. Say what?
The emphasis shifts to how do I make something out of this, which whips you into a more deliberately creative mode. Suddenly there are things to overcome, from lighting to lousy composition. There are things to improve, since the subject isn’t supplying its own drama or beauty and needs you to shape it. It’s strange. The things that matter most can cause you to take the most lax approach to recording them, while the junk you shot just because it was there can get your juices going.
More importantly, since the “meaningless” is generally unknown to you, you don’t bring any biases to it. You don’t have a usual or traditional way of seeing it (you don’t care about it, remember?) , so you don’t fall into lazy habits or a usual way of photographing it. Its newness makes you innovate, makes you work harder to (here comes the chorus) make something out of nothing.
It’s when you have the most organic, most open attitude toward what you’re shooting that you feel relaxed enough to experiment, which speeds up your learning curve and deepens your involvement. And that means better pictures, since you take yourself, as well as the camera, off automode.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT WAS NEARLY A GENERATION AGO that Professor James Burke was the most admired media “explainer” of history and culture on both sides of the Atlantic, largely as a result of video adaptations of his hit books Connections and The Day The Universe Changed. Burke, trained at Jesus College in Oxford, was spectacularly talented at showing the interlocking linkages of events and human development, demonstrating the way they meshed together to act endlessly upon history, like gears locked in one large rotation. The result for viewers on PBS and the BBC was better than an ah, ha moment. It was more like an of course moment. Oh, yes, I see now. Of course.
In Universe especially, he examined the specific moments when everything we “knew” was altered forever. For example, we all “knew” the earth was flat, until we knew the exact opposite. We all “knew” that the sun rotated around the Earth, right up until that belief was turned on its ear. Our ideas of truth have always been like Phoenix birds, flaming out of existence only to rise, reconfigured, out of their own ashes. Burke sifted the ashes and set our imaginations ablaze.
As photographers, we have amazing opportunities to depict these transformative moments. In the 1800’s, the nation’s industrial sprawl across the continent was frozen in time with photo essays on the dams, highways, railroads and settlements that were rendering one reality moot while promising another. In the early 1900’s we made images of the shift between eras as the horrors of World War One rendered the Victorian world, along with our innocence, obsolete.
I love exploring these instants of transformation by way of still-life compositions that represent change, the juncture of was and will be. Like the above arrangement, in which some kind of abstract artillery seems to have un-horsed the quaint army of a chess set, I am interested in staging worlds that are about to go out of fashion. Sometimes it takes the form of a loving portrait of bygone technology, such as a preciously irrelevant old camera. Other times you have to create a miniature of the universe you are about to warp out of shape. Either way, it makes for an amazing exercise in re-visualizing the familiar, and reminds us, as Professor Burke did so well, that truth is both more, and less, than we know.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS AN OLD ADVERTISING MAXIM that the first person to introduce a product to market becomes the “face” of all versions of that product forever, no matter who else enters as a competitor. Under this thinking, all soda generically becomes a Coke; all facial tissues are Kleenexes: and no matter who made your office copier, you use it to make…Xeroxes. The first way we encounter something often becomes the way we “see” it, maybe forever.
Photography is shorthand for what takes much longer to explain verbally, and sometimes the first way we visually present something “sticks” in our head, becoming the default image that “means” that thing. Architecture seems to send that signal with certain businesses, certainly. When I give you Doric columns and gargoyles, you are a lot likelier to think courthouse than doghouse. If I show you panes of reflective glass, large open spaces and stark light fixtures, you might sift through your memory for art gallery sooner than you would for hardware store. It’s just the mind’s convenient filing system for quickly identifying previous files, and it can be a great tool for your photography as well.
As a shooter, you can sell the idea of a type of space based on what your viewer expects it to look like, and that could mean that you shoot an understated or even tightly composed, partial view of it, secure in the knowledge that people’s collective memory will provide any missing data. Being sensitive to what the universally accepted icons of a thing are means you can abbreviate or abstract its presentation without worrying about losing impact.
Photography can be at its most effective when you can say more and more with less and less. You just have to know how much to pare away and still preserve the perception.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
“PHOTOGRAPHY DEALS EXCLUSIVELY WITH APPEARANCES” remarked Duane Michals years ago, “but, nothing is what it appears to be.” That’s a remarkably clear summation of the terms under which, with greater regularity, I approach things with my camera. In over fifty years of clicking away, I have never really felt like my work was reportage, or the recording of “reality”, but rather the use of reality like another paint brush or tube of color towards the more general goal of making a picture. What I wind up with certainly “appears” like something, but it’s not really a literal representation of what I saw. It is the thing I pointed the lens at, but, if I am lucky, it’s got some other extra ingredient that was mine alone. Or so I hope.
This idea that appearances are just elements in the making of something personal seems to be borne out on those photo “field trips” where instructors take a small mob of shooters out onto the street, all of them assigned to photograph the same subject or scene. Seldom is there a consistent result as these half dozen noobs frame up a common object, a phenomenon which argues for the notion of photography as interpretation, not just the making of a visual record. Consider: if the machine really were all, every one of the students’ images should look remarkably alike, but they generally don’t. How could they, when the mystery link in every shooter’s work flow has to be the “filter” of his or her own experiences? You show how a thing appears, but it doesn’t match someone else’s sense of what it is. And that’s the divine, civil argument our vision has with everyone else’s, that contrast between my eye and your brain that allows photographs to become art.
I think that it’s possible to worry about whether your photograph “tells a story” to such a degree that you force it to be a literal narrative of something. See this? Here’s the cute little girl walking down the country lane to school with her dog. Here’s the sad old man sitting forlornly on a park bench. You can certainly make images of narrowly defined narratives, but you can also get into the self-conscious habit of trying to bend your images to fit the needs of your audiences, to make things which are easy for them to digest.Kinda like Wonder Bread for the eye.
As photographers, we still sweat the answer to the meaningless question, “what’s that supposed to be?”, as if every exposure must be matched up with someone who will validate it with an approving smile. Thing is, mere approval isn’t true connection….it’s just, let’s say, successful marketing. Make a picture in search of something in yourself, and other seekers will find it as well.
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
WHEN IT COMES TO DISCUSSIONS ABOUT ART, THE WORD “ABSTRACT” IS PROBABLY THE MOST BATTED-ABOUT LINGUISTIC SHUTTLECOCK OF THE 20TH CENTURY, something we lob at each other across the conversational net as it suits our mood. Whenever we feel we should weigh in on a matter of artistic heft, especially something that doesn’t fit into a conveniently familiar cubbyhole, we drag “abstract” out of the desk drawer, dust it off, and cram it into place somewhere in the argument.
Any talk of architecture, and the photographer’s reaction to it, attracts a lot of stray “abstracts”, since attaching the word seems to settle… something. However, art can never be about settling anything. In fact, it’s about churning things up, starting, rather than resolving, arguments. As pieces of pure design, finished buildings do make a statement of sorts about the architect’s view, at least. But when trolling about town, I am more drawn to incomplete or skeletal frameworks for buildings yet to be. They are simply open to greater interpretation as visual subject matter, since we haven’t, if you like, seen all the architect’s cards yet. The emerging project can, for a time, be anything, depending literally on where you stand or how light shapes the competing angles and contours.
I feel that open or unfinished spaces are really ripe with an infinite number of framings, since a single uncompleted wall gives way so openly to all the other planes and surfaces in the design, a visual diagram that will soon be closed up, sealed off, sequestered from view. And as for the light, there is no place it cannot go, so you can chase the tracking of shadows all day long, as is possible with, say, the Grand Canyon, giving the same composition drastically different flavors in just the space of a few hours.
If the word “abstract” has any meaning at all at this late date, you could say that it speaks to a variation, a reworking of the dimensions of what we consider reality. Beyond that, I need hip waders. However, I believe that emerging buildings represent an opportunity for photographers to add their own vision to the architect’s, however briefly.
Whew. Now let’s all go out get a drink.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MAKING PICTURES, FOR ME, IS LIKE MAKING TAFFY. The only good results I get are from stretching and twisting between two extremes. Push and pull. Yank and compress. Stray and stay. Say everything or speak one single word.
This is all about composition, the editing function of what to put in or leave out. In my head, it’s a constant and perpetually churning debate over what finally resides within the frame. No, that needs something more. No, that’s way too much. Cut it. Add it. I love it, it’s complete chaos. I love it, it’s stark and lonely.
Can’t settle the matter, and maybe that’s the point. How can your eye always do the same kind of seeing? How can your heart or mind ever be satisfied with one type of poem or story? Just can’t, that’s all.
But I do have a kind of mental default setting I return to, to keep my tiny little squirrel brain from exploding.
When I need to clean out the pipes, I tend to gravitate to the simplest compositions imaginable, a back-to-basics approach that forces me to see things with the fewest possible elements, then to begin layering little extras back in, hoping I’ll know when to stop. In the case of the above image, I was shooting inside a darkened room with only an old 1939 World’s Fair paperweight for a subject, and holding an ordinary cheap flashlight overhead with one hand as I framed and focused, handheld, with the other hand. I didn’t know what I wanted. It was a fishing expedition, plain and simple. What I soon decided, however, was that, instead of one element, I was actually working with two.
Basic flashlights have no diffusers, and so they project harsh concentric circles as a pattern. Shifting the position of the flashlight seemed to make the paperweight appear to be ringed by eddying waves, orbit trails if you will. Suddenly the mission had changed. I now had something I could use as the center of a little solar system, so, now,for a third element, I needed “satellites” for that realm. Back to the junk drawer for a few cat’s eye marbles. What, you don’t have a bag of marbles in the same drawer with your shaving razor and toothpaste? What kinda weirdo are you?
Shifting the position of the marbles to suggest eccentric orbits, and tilting the light to create the most dramatic shadow ellipses possible gave me what I was looking for….a strange, dreamlike little tabletop galaxy. Snap and done.
Sometimes going back to a place where there are no destinations and no rules help me refocus my eye. Or provides me with the delusion that I’m in charge of some kind of process.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I HAVE MADE A CONSCIOUS EFFORT, IN RECENT YEARS, TO AVOID TAKING A “STRAIGHT SHOT” OUT OF, OR THROUGH A WINDOW, of using that rectangle or square as a conventional means of bordering a shot. Making a picture where a standard view of the world is merely surrounded by a typical frame shows my eye nothing at all, whereas the things that fragment that frame, that break it into smaller pieces, bisecting or even blocking information…..that’s fascinating to me.
This is not an arbitrary attempt to be “arty” or abstract. I simply prefer to build a little mystery into my shots, and a straight out-the-window framing defeats that. My showing everything means the viewer supplies nothing of his own. Conversely, pictures that both reveal and conceal, simultaneously, invite speculation and encourage inquiry. It’s more of a conversation.
Think about it like a love scene in a movie. If every part of “the act” is depicted, it’s not romantic, not sexy. It’s what the director leaves out of the scene that fires the imagination, that makes it a personal creation of your mind. Well-done love scenes let the audience create part of the picture. Showing everything is clinical….boring.
With that in mind, The Normal Eye’s topside menu now has an additional image gallery called Split Decisions, featuring shots that attempt to show what can result when you deliberately break up the normal framing in and out of windows. Some of the shots wound up doing what I wanted: others came up short, but may convey something to someone else.
As always, let us know what you think, and thanks for looking.
- Framing Framing Framing!!! (destynimcbeth.wordpress.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
INTELLECTUALLY, I KNOW THAT PHOTOGRAPHS DON’T NECESSARILY HAVE TO BE “ABOUT”, well, anything, but that doesn’t stop the 12-year-old photo newbie deep inside me from trying to produce images with “meaning” (yawn). Some reason to look. A subject. A story line. A deliberate arrangement of things for the purpose of communicating…something. Itchy and twitchy within my artist’s skin as I always am, I am never more out of my element than when I make a picture that is pure composition and form, a picture that has no reason to exist except that I wish it to.
As I get older, I get looser (no G.I. tract jokes about the elderly, please), and thus making what you might call “absolute” images gets easier. I just had to learn to give myself permission to do them. Unlike Atget, Brassai, and half a dozen early pioneering photographers, I don’t have to take pictures to earn my bread, so, if I capture something that no one else “gets” or likes, my children will not starve. Still, the act of making photographs that carry no narrative is far from native to me, and, if I live to be 125, I’ll probably learn to relax and really do something okay by about 93.
The process can be a head-scratcher.
The above image is an “absolute” of sorts, since I have no emotional investment whatever in the subject matter, and have nothing to reveal about it to anyone else. The arbitrary and somewhat sterile symmetry of this room, discovered during a random walk through a furniture store, just struck me, and I still cannot say why. Nor can I explain why it scores more views on Flickr over some of my more emotional work by a margin of roughly 500 to 1. A whole lot of people are seeing something in this frame, but I suspect that they are all experiencing something different. They each are likely taking vastly varied things from it, and maybe they are bringing something to it as well. Who knows what it is? Sense memory, a fondness for form or tone, maybe even a mystery that is vaguely posed and totally unresolved.
“Even though there are recognizable objects making up the arrangement, the result is completely abstract.There isn’t a “human” story to tell here, since this room has never been inhabited by humans, except for wandering browsers. It has no history; nothing wonderful or dreadful ever happened here. In fact, nothing of any kind ever happened here. It has to be form for its own sake; it has no context.
I liked what happened with the very huge amount of soft window light (just out of frame), and I thought it was best to render the room’s already muted tones in monochrome (it wasn’t a big leap). Other than that, it would be stupid to caption or explain anything within it. It is for bringers and takers, bless them, to confer meaning on it, if they can. As I said earlier, it’s always a little scary for me to let go of my overbrain when making a picture.
Then I remember this is supposed to be about feeling as well as thinking.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.
- First Critique (cohensrphotography.wordpress.com)
BY MICHAEL PERKINS
NOT CONTENT TO BE AN ART ON ITS OWN TERMS, PHOTOGRAPHY IS ALSO CONSTANTLY RE-INTERPRETING ALL THE OTHER ARTS AS WELL. Ever since imaging fell out of the cradle in the early 1800’s, several of us have always been looking at the works of others and saying, “eh, I can probably do something with that.”
Yeah, not too presumptuous, right? And the trend has continued (some say worsened) to the present day. Half the time we are creating something. The other half of the time we are tweaking, mocking, honoring, loving, hating, shredding, re-combining, or ragging on somebody else’s work. Are these mashups also art? Are we co-creators or just cheesy thieves?
And does it matter?
The Phoenix Art Museum greets customers with a stunning original sculpture in glass and plexi right at the entrance to its ticket lobby. A huge installation of light bulbs, mirrored surfaces and reflective discs, Josiah McIlheny’s The Last Scattering Surface resembles a brightly burning orb (planet? asteroid? dwarf star?) surrounded by jutting rods that carry the central sphere’s light along “rays” to a series of circular satellites (moons? craft? debris?) Like many examples of pure design it is both everything and nothing, that is, it is mutative based on your observation. So, in a way, as in the manner of a photographer, you are already a participant in the co-creation of this object just by looking at it. Does this mean that it’s less theif-ish to go ahead and mutate the man’s work?
Well, there’s probably a lively back-and-forth on that.
For my own “take”, I wanted to remove the background walls, visitors, ambient blurry light from other junk, to isolate this nova-like work in “space”. I only had one frame that I liked from my short blast of shots, so I duped it, slammed the contrast real light/real dark on the pair, and did an exposure fusion in Photomatix. Adding a little edge blur and a re-tinting to the composite gave me the look of an interstellar explosion.
I freely advertise that I am making a semi-original re-mix on a completely original work. It’s not much more radical than shooting with a filter on the lens, or choosing black and white for a color subject, and yet, it always feels funny to try and make something beautiful that was beautiful in the first place.
But art is supposed to be about starting conversation, so consider this mine.
I just did my talking with a box instead of a mouth.
follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @ mpnormaleye.com
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE ARE ALWAYS CONCEPTS THAT YOU FORCE YOURSELF TO RE-VISIT, almost to the point of obsession. We all have subjects that, as photographers, we just can’t stop turning over in our minds. This reluctance to “just move on” may occur with a place, a person’s face, an arrangement of shapes, a select element of light, but, whatever the source, it gnaws at us. We dream of the next chance to go back and tackle it again. We truly believe that the “right” shot is in there somewhere, just as a statue of an elephant is somewhere inside a slab of marble. As the old joke goes, just chip away anything that doesn’t look like an elephant and there you are (That’s either a really stupid joke or amazing profundity. Depending on which day you ask me, I can take either side. Anyway….).
I have at least one restaurant, a small city park, about a dozen still life projects, and one or two human faces that haunt me in this way. In every case, I get stuck on the idea that, with a moment of inspiration, I’m one click away from the ideal I see in my mind. Only, like a desert mirage, the ideal keeps wiggling and warping into something else. Maybe I’ve already made the best version of that picture already. Maybe there really is nothing more to be done.
As a lifelong musical tinkerer, I’ve always been interested in pianos both as machines that are crafted to do incredibly complicated things, and as a kind of sculpture, a shaper of space and light. Some photographers have used them as incredibly dynamic design elements to remarkably dramatic effect. Arnold Newman’s classic portrait of composer Igor Stravinsky uses only the lid of a concert grand to flank the maestro, but it’s all the piano he needs to tell the story and it’s a wondrous horizontal use of space. Others have created brilliant images using just portions of the keyboard. Do a search of your own and be amazed at the variety of results.
Me, I’m a “guts” kinda guy. Lifting the lid on my first piano to see what made it tick was one of the most thrilling moments of my childhood, and, now, years later, I see the mechanism inside my own baby grand as a way to reflect, capture and shape light. It’s like having a giant Spirograph or a metallic spider web. Lots of ways this could go. In the above image, morning light gave me a big break, as the golden cast of the good, early stuff blended with ambient tones in the harp strings and the inside of the cabinet. While the light falls off sharply at the margins, it makes much of the mechanism fairly glow, and, while I can’t stop tinkering with my lifelong “piano-as-design-object” quest (at least this side of the grave), I think this is a step in the right direction. Where we’re eventually going, who knows?
As usual, I’m just enjoying the ride.