By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT OCCURRED TO ME, RECENTLY, TO LIST SOME OF THE WORKS OF ART that have imparted the greatest sense of peace to me, and to take note of how many of them were first conceived in a spirit of resistance or struggle.
A few come to mind at once: the stirring finale of Tchaikovsky’s 1812: the stirring images of Dust Bowl Americans striving to emerge from devastation and despair: nearly every page of every Dickens novel. Many of the things we recognize as artistically eternal or universal were originally created as protests, as deliberate acts of soulful sabotage against the prevailing darkness. Any act of art, including a photograph, can begin as a raised fist against something unthinkable, but the photograph itself can defy the odds in a different way: by being a defiant declaration of joy.
Journalistic images certainly play a key role in combating fear and ignorance, shining a light where some prefer it not be shone. But the very act of art is, itself, a protest….against the view that life is worthless, against the seductive pull of despair. Art is the affirmation of life, the insistence that it continue, even thrive. Like the flower peeping through the wire seen in this image, we aspire…we arc ourselves toward whatever light there is. And so, it’s easy to make a list of pictures that have gone beyond mere reportage to become celebrations of the things in the world that are still elegant, beautiful, and soul-sustaining.
There are days, like those of the present age (and countless ages before this), when it seems that night will never end, and, for those days, art that cries freedom, that re-certifies the best of us, is surely a revolutionary act. It’s more than merely “cheering up”, and it’s certainly not a turning away from “reality”. It is, instead, a refusal to go quietly, an act of resistance that says that hope is not only possible, but the only perpetually blooming human instinct that can bore through the stone of silence, the barriers of hate.
Photographs are part of this refusal to lie down and die, a tool that the artist can use to stoop down into the rubble and resurrect something that will outlast the night. In measuring light inside our magic boxes, we preserve it, sanctify it, and, in so doing, all of us, one image at a time, begin to save the world entire.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SEARCH ANY ONLINE PHOTO SHARING PLATFORM and it’s pretty easy to compose a quick list of the categories into which the site’s submissions fall. You’ll see the usual suspects, ranked in order of their appearance, from Sunsets, Landscapes and Kids to Animals, Seascapes and Macro, and so on into the night. However, if I’m honest (and I am, if you catch me on the right day), I’d have to confess that a significant number of my own images more accurately belong under a heading no one actually creates, a category called I Really Like What The Light Is Doing Now.
It always strikes me odd that classifications should exist in art at all. Such appelations are largely the work of clerical people, who decided, long ago, that pictures are supposed to be about something. They are expected to be narrative or explanatory in nature, documents of specific places or experiences. A permanent record of something concrete (or cement, if that’s your preference). Thing is, at some level, many of us fell in love with photography because of magic, not reason. We felt a thrill at doing this and watching that happen. Wait, if I turn it this way, wow, look at that. That’s not the thought pattern of a bean counter. That’s the wonder of a child encountering a new toy.
Every time someone produces what you might call an “absolute” photograph, something that is only about itself and nothing more, the dreaded “A”-word (abstract!) is trotted out and pasted all over the work like some kind of biohazard warning. In fact, making a picture just because I Really Like What The Light Is Doing Now is perfectly sufficient unto itself. Let’s not forget that being able to capture light in a box is not only a flat-out miracle, but, in terms of history, a fairly recent one. Being overawed with joy at just that process alone is still totally appropriate. Emotionally, when it comes to the process of making pictures, we’re still at the baby steps stage, regardless of how sophisticated we currently believe ourselves to be.
The only thing more tedious than trying to corral photos into categories is making photographers feel like they need to explain them, as if that’s even possible. My favorite title for a picture (and the most popular world-wide) is “untitled”, and, even though I apply titles to most of my work, such captions are deliberately constructed as mere snarky wordplay and do not convey any information, much less explain, the pictures. In the same spirit, if I encounter a person whose first reaction to an image is “what’s that supposed to be?”, I stop showing them any pictures thereafter. If I knew what it was supposed to be, I’d take one picture, one time, nail it, and move on. I’m only interested in the pictures I haven’t yet figured out how to make.
Subject matter is a tidy way for some people to divide art into easily sortable bins, and that’s not how the best pictures get made. We need to concentrate less on the bin and more on the stuff that falls to the floor outside it, and to notice, above everything else, What The Light Is Doing Right Now. Celebrating the magic is the only way to ensure that we’ll make more of it in future.
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?
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.