the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Posts tagged “analysis

NOTHING AT FACE VALUE

By MICHAEL PERKINS

SOMETIMES I THINK THAT PHOTOGRAPHERS, especially beginners, needlessly hem themselves in by “pre-editing” their work. Being human, we all care, to some degree, about how our images “play” to various viewers, and so it’s understandable that we can be scared away from attempting certain things that are too jarring or disorienting to our intended audiences. We work to hard to avoid the attachment of certain labels to our pictures.

The “a” word, “abstract”, is one such label. It’s a scare word. And it can spook us out of truly innovative image-making.

Sure, we may know that, strictly speaking, abstraction really just means extraction, pulling a visual shorthand of essence out of a more complex subject. Rather than merely recording the full detail of an object in a photograph, the abstract photographer reduces it to its most effective basics. A baseball loses its stitches and writing and becomes just a sphere. Abstraction can also yank something out of its familiar context, forcing the viewer to regard it on its own merits, so that an entire salad is reduced to the sensual curvature of one section of a single vegetable.

Okay, so that’s what we know about abstraction. However, what we feel, even about just the word, can cow us into conformity. We fear being called “artsy”, avant-grade, pretentious. And we gradually adjust our images to reflect what others regard as “real”. It’s tough: learning to trust your own vision is the single hardest lesson in any art. But what’s the alternative? Cranking out the same systematic execution of a flower for the next forty years just to curry favor with the mob?

If you observe an orchid (like the one above), and see, not merely a flower, but a winged creature taking flight, why not take the extra step and reclaim the “realness” of that object for your own purpose? The camera is an interpretative tool, not a video recorder.

Anytime we are tempted to restrict our pictures to what the world at large regards as “real”, we should listen for abstraction’s quiet but persistent question. “Real” according to whom?


COUNTRY MOUSE, CITY MOUSE

I love landscapes, but cityscapes send me off the launch pad.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

EVERY ARTIST MUST KNOW WHICH CANVAS (or platform) is best for his particular work. And while photography is so rangy and wide, trying to find an area of speciality is no great challenge, so long as you are honest with yourself as to what your eye can effectively deliver. Do portraits alone help your vision pour forth? Then move in that direction, certainly. Drawn to minimalism as a way of expression? Then simplify, my son, simplify, and go in peace.

In fact, my own visual bias, if that’s the word, runs counter to my earliest influences. The first photographs that made me gasp in awe were, in fact, landscapes, since, as a boy, I collected many travel slides and magazines which emphasized life in the natural world. However, my second great influence was that of the great urban photographers, both journalists and poets, whose medium was the man-made, and not the organic, type of mountain. And even though I continued to marvel at the stunning statements made by naturalist shooters, I came to know that I did not have anything particularly wise or wonderful to contribute in that area.

I love nature. It is restorative, contemplative, and any other “ive” you choose. However, I cannot, personally, produce anything poetic or glorious in depicting it. I envy ecumenical writers like Walt Whitman, who reveled in both mountain and city street alike, describing both with incredible passion and power. As a photographer, however, I decided long ago to shoot where my eye is most organically excited…and that’s the city. I can never completely abandon scenic subjects, since I continue to hold out hope that one or another of them will make my heart leap to my throat, and, in turn, make a great vision leap into my camera.

Of course, the longer you make photographs, the more universal your purely technical competence becomes, in that you can deliver a serviceable picture regardless of the assignment. But a photograph is never merely a recording, and simply making an adequately composed, reasonably exposed frame is no greater an achievement than waiting the requisite number of minutes to soak a tea bag. It’s not so much knowing how to make the picture as wanting to, since that desire is the principal difference between acceptable and exceptional. Of course, passion is also not enough, any more than technical acumen is. But when the two meet, they will produce your best work.

As in the author’s mantra “write what you know about”, “shoot what you feel” must surely be a kind of aspirational prayer for better pictures. Can anyone say if a tree is less beautiful than a skyscraper? Not with any true authority. Point that camera where your heart points, and it’s hard to go far wrong.


DON’T LIKE, LOOK

Looking at photographs is no less a skill than producing them.

Looking at photographs is no less a skill than producing them.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I RECENTLY OVERHEARD A CONVERSATION BETWEEN TWO YOUNG WOMEN which involved the viewing of one woman’s phone images, which she was sharing with her friend. Perhaps “sharing” is too generous a term, as the review of pictures, rendered with a cross-telephone swipe between each one, took approximately ten seconds, punctuated by the following remarks:

“That’s cool..”

THAT‘s cool…”

“That one’s REALLY cool…send it to me, willya?”

Love it…”

“Oh, too cute…”

Totally cool…”

The present age’s crushing overload of sensory information, including the billions of photographs snapped each day, has turned us into a nation of glimpsers. We sense images only fleetingly as they zoom past our window, each new one obliterating the one which preceded it, each one awaiting its own turn to be eclipsed by something newer, cooler, cuter. While the operative word for those viewing the world’s first photographs might have been: look. Now that word is simply: next. 

Whatever, dude. We don’t even care whether someone has examined, considered, or absorbed our photographs, as long as they issue a perfunctory, agreeable grunt of some sort between each one or reflexively (and meaninglessly) twitch a “like” click in the appropriate box. The sheer volume of things to be reviewed, and, God spare us, ruled on in some way has turned us into a race of card shufflers. There, we promise. We’ve processed your output and pronounced most of it passable.

Gee, thanks a lot. Thanks for nothing.

The ability to churn out photographs like potato chips certainly provides more opportunities for more people to produce something great. However, if our view of those scads of potential masterpieces is akin to watching bicycle spokes whiz by, then we cannot meet the photographer’s vision with any appreciative seeing of our own. Certainly, some photographs are not worthy of large audiences, but we also have become lousy audiences for the pictures that do deserve to be lingered over, thought about, treasured.

Do a favor for the people in your lives that take photographs. “Like” them a lot less. Look at them a lot more. There is no rush, except the one in your head. Appreciating beauty, or wonder, or art is not a homework assignment, to be tossed off on the way to the next, new thing. Give the pictures time to talk to you. Give yourself back the ear to hear.

Slow the bloody hell down.