By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN HIS ESSENTIAL 1982 BOOK MEGATRENDS, the late John Nesbit, trying to predict the uber-changes that would eventually govern our present-day world, described a coping method, a law of compensation called “high tech / high touch”. HT/HT was a kind of social recalibration in which the feeling of dislocation generated by surges of technological advancement would be followed by movements that re-emphasized the comforts of the world just vanished. Think of it as a kind of emotional recoil, in which we spring back from forward leaps to the familarity of simpler times, such as the recent re-emergence of physical vinyl phonograph records as a reaction to the phantom musical realms of the cloud. Nesbit’s prophecy seems to have been realized in many such areas of our society, and photography has certainly seen its share of the phenomenon.
In the camera world, Nesbit’s “high tech-high touch” is a boomerang reaction to the digital era in picture-making, a time of enormous advances in the way images are recorded, manipulated and distributed. Indeed, as foretold in Megatrends, the past thirty years has seen a tremendous counter-revolution that, far from embracing a world that is bent upon perfecting the photographic process, actually rejects it, longing for a return to the very imprecision that defined the analog world, topped off, this time around, with a healthy dollop of nostalgia.
Digital photo sharing was no sooner off the drawing board than people began to pine for their old shoeboxes of physical prints, pictures “you could hold in your hand”. Cue the rebirth of the defunct Polaroid company and a return to instant analog photography, bad film, faulty lenses and all. Hate the coldness of binary storage? Enter the new passion for film of all kinds, aimed at an audience too young to remember how expensive and unwieldy it was, or how poorly built some bargain cameras had been. Coated with the sheen of yester-appeal, these shortcomings became pluses, hailed as “spontaneous”, “unpredictable”, or “delightfully imperfect” in the re-introduction of cheap old plastic toy cameras like the Holga (see above image) and, in turn, the creation of an underclass of all-new, technically compromised gear under the banner of the “Lomography” movement. Like your retro on the arty side? Welcome to the all-manual Lensbaby line, whose higher-end optics sold selective focus to a global fanbase.
A loving return to the imprecision and high failure rate of the film era became attractive to the creators of apps as well, and today, the insanely efficient cameras of the iPhone age sell millions of dollars of applications designed to simulate light leakage, expired film, high grain, lens flares….to, in essence, enshrine all the aggravations of the analog age as some kind of photographic golden oldies. We now praise the defects we used to spend tons of money to avoid. The scary uniformity of high-tech photography has come with a side of high-touch comfort food. It’s a little like Captain Kirk refusing the option of living in a world free of conflict, declaring, without irony, “I need my pain.” Perhaps the chance that something will go wrong is a needed contrast in a world where the likelihood of error has largely been engineered out. Neither precision or randomness is a guarantee of artistic merit, however: that, at least remains, as constantly as ever, in the individual photographer’s hands.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE MANY ONLINE PHOTO CONSIGNMENT SITES, which, of course, make lots of money by buying what shooters no longer love, claims, in its welcome page, that “research (?) shows that nearly half of U.S. photographers have cameras or lenses that they haven’t used in two years.” As evidence, this is both unprovable and un-unproveable. It may be total bushwah, and it may also be God’s truth. But for many people who’ve been shooting for a while, it kinda sorta feels….reasonable.
What would be more interesting to me, however, in terms of specious claims about what equipment we do or don’t use, would be a breakout (pie chart? bar chart? Venn diagram?) of which percentage of even our most favorite cameras we never, ever use, for anything. It’s not a stunning revelation that cameras are larded up with a lot of techo-fat, features upon features, menus upon menus of stuff that sounds wonderful in the brochures but doesn’t serve our most repeated or desired functions. The fact is that lots of gear can place many layers and barriers between what we see and how we set about to trap our vision in the box. We can get so besotted with the setting-up phase, the romantic dance of making a technically flawless picture, that we get sidetracked from how simple a process it really is….or should be.
Aperture. Shutter Speed. ISO. Lather, rinse repeat. Change one part of the triangle and the other two will be changed as well. That’s it. Class dismissed. Now get out of here and go make pictures.
Is this image made on a cheap point-and-shoot? Or a $2,000 pro tool? A Leica or an iPhone? Analog or digital? Can it, in fact, have been produced equally well by all of those, if the photographer applies vision and care?
Manufacturers drag us from one model camera to another, laying in just enough innovation or novelty to render our current equipment “obsolete” and to artificially engineer desire for the latest thing. I spent a career in mass media and can attest to how effective this approach is. It sells a crap-ton of cameras, as well as cars, apparel, audio gear, and breakfast cereal. But for photographic purposes, it can actually weigh a shooter down, delay the moment of decision, or, worst of all, create the belief that the other guy’s camera, being more advanced than our own, guarantees said other guy better pictures. And, since I have already used “bushwah” once in this tract, I’ll now characterize this belief as “malarkey”.
The mechanics of making an image are inherently as consistent as they are simple, and, if there was a magical evidentiary graph to show how much of our cameras we actually use, it is my contention that the list of most frequent operations would be small, and would not include the majority of the tools and add-ons built into our equipment. That is why, along with other reasons, I still occasionally shoot film in, completely mechanical cameras….to force myself to think in very simple rules of engagement and to find the pictures that any camera, simple or complicated, can produce. And while there will be times that I miss some of the lovely extras that now crowd our devices, I can always re-learn the habit of shooting without them, drilling down to the bedrock of what makes a picture work. And if, as the consignment sites claim, “nearly half” of us have cameras or lenses that we don’t use, perhaps we need to ask ourselves why that is.
By MICHAEL PERKINS (author of the new image collection FIAT LUX, available from NormalEye Press)
IF YOU ARE IN THE RANKS OF THOSE PHOTOGRAPHERS who still shoot film on occasion, you will, in the return to your old analog ways, find yourself suddenly cured of a habit we all have acquired to varying degrees since the dawn of digital. The instantaneous feedback of the pixelated life has taught us the now-instinctual reflex of what is called chimping, or the practice of checking our screens immediately after every click, ostensibly to determine if we’re getting things right/wrong. The name of this syndrome may have come from the “ooh-ooh-ooh!” sound made by chimpanzees when they are excited…like when they nail an exposure perfectly and can’t wait to get a perfunctory agreement grunt from the next chimp over. All ape references aside, to look is human, or, as Tarzan discovered, there’s a little Cheeta in all of us (sorry).
Chimping has changed the rhythm of photography from shoot/shoot/shoot/shoot/wait….(and eventually)view to shoot/look/share/shoot/look/share(and occasionally) delete. There is no equivalent to chimping in the film world, since there is no way to instantly review one’s results. In anaog shooting, correction from frame-to-frame is a matter of calculation and informed guesswork, and the results….well, they kind of define the phrase “delayed gratification”, don’t they? Chimping is a product of the very opposite…..which is the utter obliteration of the space between desire and payoff. So is this a good thing?
Every time you sneak a peek at your screen, you are, however briefly, taking your mind out of “shooting mode”. You are also taking your eye off of whatever subject you just shot, which may still be developing or changing. It’s conceivable, then, that while you are reviewing a shot that may/may not be any good, a shot that may/may not be better is invisible to you, simply because you are not looking at it. In some instances, this may be no big deal. For instance, if you are doing a leisurely shoot of a landscape or a sleeping child, breaking the thought flow to review images in between frames may not be a problem at all. On the other hand, if you’re following a sports event or a flitting bird, you could easily miss out on what’s happening by cooing over what’s already happened.
Of course, it’s easy to make broad generalizations on the value/risk of any shooting rhythm, and, like the commercial says, ask your doctor is chimping is right for you. It’s principally interesting to consider its value, however, simply because it is such a recent part of photography, and one which has become part of everyone’s work flow largely without our being aware of its encroachment. Maybe it’s caught on for purely social reasons, like our desperate need, via social media, to post and be liked. That’s the part of chimping I most disdain; its use as an instant booster shot of validation, our bid for more immediate applause. I can’t say I’m without guilt in making use of it myself, but I love to occasionally work in an older medium in which you build confidence by making a plan, setting an intention, and focusing solely on making the picture, not drooling over how fast you might garner applause for the result. I will always fail at totally suppressing my own inner Cheeta, but I can dream, can’t I?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
2020’s GREAT HIBERNATION HAS FORCED US to add many arbitrary items to our “to do” lists, if for no other reason than to consume the mountains of newly available time with which we find ourselves encumbered. We know that a certain number of our new daily tasks are what bureaucrats call “make-work” projects, but the therapeutic value of adding real energy to even “fake” goals is indisputable. And for photographers, those projects can involve a return to things we used to do but came to consider ourselves as “done with.”
For me, that’s meant a revisitation of film, not so much for any superior aspect it might have over digital shooting, but as a refresher in the use of habits I’ve held longest as a photographer. First; it’s true that, given the technical advances and conveniences introduced over the years, there is nothing left in analog that I can’t do almost unilaterally better and faster in digital. Nothing. However, from a planning or sensibility viewpoint, there certainly are mindsets that analog photography confers upon your process. As a consequence, I try to balance the discipline of working with film with the ease of shooting in digital…to think A and shoot D, if you like.
In film, you were working with a finite work medium. Your camera could only take 24 or 36 images at a time without being hungry for more “fuel”. You paid for each new dose of that fuel, and then you paid again to have it processed, in order to see if you succeeded or failed. Worse, there were no “do-overs” built into the system, which meant that you paid real money even for your mistakes. This automatically slowed down your picture-taking process and taught you the habit of planning purposely for a set outcome. Anyone who is too young to have ever shot film has no direct experience with the extra steps in metering, measuring and composing that accompanied every shot. Everything took four moves or more. Additional lighting was cumbersome and often unreliable. Worse, some kinds of film were more unforgiving of mistakes than others, and they usually came at a premium price. And then there’s the risk of not even being able to get the camera to give you what you want. The analog frame seen here, for example, took me five full minutes to shoot, and I can still find about a dozen things wrong with it. But I can inform my digital work with the thought process it took me to make this imperfect analog image.
So far, I’m doing a great job of unselling everyone on analog for all time. But in an age in which there was no immediate results for your shots, the exercise of planning and waiting before shooting had a payoff. You seldom shot anything you didn’t care about. You were slower, more deliberate about shoots, and tended to pre-plan them, to engineer all the failure out of a picture well before you took it. You edited yourself in advance, because it cost too damned much to, as in the digital era, just crank off thirty variations of every subject and hope one of them worked out. Am I asking anyone to go out and buy a roll of film and load it into Grandpa’s Hasselblad? Not at all, and that’s not even the point. It’s far more important to shoot with analog’s special brand of intentionality, even within the comfy confines of digital. As I said earlier, think A and shoot D. Maybe an exercise in which you shoot your next, say, thirty-six images on 100% manual settings, with no re-takes on any of them and no allowing yourself to go beyond that arbitrary number of frames, might be valuable. Or not. We no longer need to put up with much of the drudgery of film, but we might be well served to observe some of the disciplines it imposed on our work.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE PICTURE YOU SEE HERE is not the type of photo I typically do a lot. And that’s odd, because it seems, in some way a prime example of what we all seek when we go out to photograph. Use your own term for it…slice of life, the common man, street photography..the list of names is long, but the idea is the same: the practice of recording something of life, from life, that reminds us of our universal humanity in some small way.
Maybe that word small is the key to it. In normal times (remember those?) we hardly blink at the millions of wee moments that aggregate to the total of our sense of “normalcy”. And if we don’t notice these millions of mini-moments ourselves, we trust artists to notice them for us, to amplify the ordinary into the marvelous. But the artist’s eye can fail as well, can become blind to minutia, aiming for bigger game to portray or preserve. The mega-calamities; the earthquakes; or, in the current world context, the boarded-up shops and empty streets. Everyone wants to take The Big Picture that explains it all, and it’s easy to forget that a large tapestry of tiny testimonies, mini-moments, can be woven into a Big Picture as well.
Even in these soul-testing times, the scene shown here is hardly front page news; Couple Walks Dog. And yet, its very ordinariness (may not be a word, look it up, campers) can be reassuring in a time when routine has been ripped to rags and not much can be taken for granted. In such a world, a child’s laugh, a sunlit hollow, a scene that appears to be part of An Uninterrupted Life, can become precious. Hardly forty-eight hours has passed since I shot this picture, and yet, in that short span of time, it has gone from a casual snap to something I hold to be precious. Certainly not for any innate skill in its execution or groundbreakingly fresh approach, but, again, for the appearance that, despite everything, some things will go on, and that we can well afford, in this superabundance of spare time, to slow down and savor them.
One of the wondrous things that was lost in the transition from analog to digital photography was the deliberateness, the necessary caution and calculation that used to go into the making of every shot. Mistakes were costly and gratification was delayed, and our slower, more reflective method reflected that. Maybe, during this forced time-out, the best thing we can do for our photographer’s eye is to allow it to notice more of everything, to slow our roll and harvest the million little fireflies that have always been swirling about our unseeing gaze.
(FIAT LUX, Michael Perkins’ newest collection of images, is now available from NormalEye Books.)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I’M BIG ON CELEBRATING THE FACT THAT DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY HAS REMOVED THE LAST FEW BARRIERS to photography being truly democratic. Just as the introduction of the Kodak Brownie in 1900 moved picture-making out of the salons of the privileged few and into the hands of John Q. Everyman, digital has been another quantum leap toward a level playing field, putting cameras almost literally into everyone’s hand. This, as with all mass movements, has both its pluses and minuses.
Digital photography has actually improved one democracy (everyone can afford to shoot) and created a second one (everyone can afford to fix what they shoot). For nearly the entire film era, processing after the shutter click was, for many of us, a luxury item. For initial developing, we defaulted to the guy at the regional Kodak plant or the corner Rexall. True hobbyists and professionals wielded most of the tools available for drastic makeovers of images, with most of us merely accepting what we got. Our near misses simply went into the loss column, while others‘ near misses could sometimes be revamped into acceptable, even exceptional photos. The titans of the photographic world (Ansel Adams and others) were renowned for their ability to creatively manipulate negatives into prints of rare art. Most of the rest of us clutched our Instamatics tightly and hoped for the best.
Unfortunately, digital has over-corrected a bit in giving Everyman the chance to salvage more shots. Instead of developing habits that are, say, 75% good shooting and 25% good processing, we have instead veered toward the opposite, with more time than ever spent “fixing” shots that were ill-conceived in the first place. Moreover, many of these fixes, mounted on apps, are general, one-click options that deny us the finely tuned control that a good film era darkroom rat would have acquired. We have gained access to the information highway, but we still drive like teenagers. We are all over the road.
I see more professionals advocating a return,not to the format of film, but the shooting discipline of film. How differently would we shoot, for example, if it were still true that we wouldn’t have a lot of options for fixing our shots later? What strategies would develop if we had to make or break our shots in the camera, without any opportunity for tweaking them thereafter? Most importantly, which of our images could stand alone as straight out of the camera executions, as products of real, hard-earned skill rather than the comfort in knowing we could probably crop, resize, re-color or repair almost anything?
Now, I am not suggesting we all go back to making our furniture out of pine logs. I am not the last guy in town to trade in my horse for a Model A. I merely think that we need to re-introduce self-reliance into the picture-making process, to shoot as if it’s all on us, as if no Tech Avenger will ride to the rescue if we blow the shot in-camera. In fact, I am arguing for what I always argue for….personal responsibility for getting the shot right in the moment. Frame it, conceive it, expose it right the first time. It teaches us better habits, it increases our actual knowledge of what we’re doing, and it speeds our advancement as nothing else can.
Digital is a fabulous box of paints. Now we need to re-learn how to hold the brush.