By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY YEAR AT THIS TIME, AS I HIT THE RESET BUTTON ON MY LIFE VIA SOME KIND OF BIRTHDAY RITUAL, I pause to wonder, again, whether I’ve really learned anything at all in over fifty years of photography. Surely, by this late date, the habit of shooting constantly should have assured me that I had “arrived” at some place in terms of viewpoint or style, right? And yet, I still feel as if I am just barely inches off the starting line in terms of what there is left to learn, and how much more I need to know about seeing. It’s a great feeling in that it keeps things perpetually fresh, but I often wonder if I’ll ever make it to that mirage I see ever ahead of me.
The aging process, and how that continually remaps your perception, is one of the least pondered areas of criticism as it pertains to photography. And that’s very strange. We track the evolution of technical acuity over a lifetime. We date ourselves in reference to a piece of equipment we acquired, an influential person who crossed our path, or a body of work, but we don’t thoroughly examine how much our photography is being changed completely because the person making the picture is in constant flux. How can we ignore what seems to be the biggest shaper of our vision over time? We don’t even want the same things in an image from one year to the next, so how can we take photos in our maturity anything like those we shot in our youth?
Looking back to my first images, it’s clear that I thought the mere opportunity for a picture plus the act of clicking a shutter would result in a good picture, a kind of “cool view+camera=art” equation. This is to say that, instead of thinking, “I could make a good picture from this”, I was actually thinking, “this would be a good picture.” I know that sounds like hair-splitting of the first order, but the two statements are, in fact, different. The first implies that the camera plus the subject will automatically result in something solid; it’s a snapshot philosophy. The second statement is made by someone who has been frustrated by so many snapshots that he knows he has to step into the process as an active player. That realization can only come with age.
As always, my father’s admonition that art is a process rather than a product emerges as my prime directive. When I look at the pictures made by a twelve-year old me, I can at least see what the little punk was going for, and I can measure whether I’ve gotten any closer to that ideal than he did. The trick is for old me to want it as badly as young me did, and when that happens, I forget how many candles are on the cake, and am just grateful that their light still burns brightly.
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.