By MICHAEL PERKINS
MUSEUMS AND GALLERIES COMPRISE SOME OF THE MOST INTERESTING WORKOUT SPACES for photographers, but for none of the reasons you might suppose. On the most obvious level, certainly,they are repositories of human endeavor, acting basically as big warehouses for things we deem important. But, beyond that, they are also laboratories for every kind of lighting situation, a big ‘ol practice pad for the mastery of lenses and exposure strategies. Sometimes the arrangement of color and shadow in some art houses is so drastically different from room to room that, even if there is nothing of note hanging on the walls, the walls themselves can frame amazing compositional challenges.
There is also a secondary, and fairly endless, source of photographic sketch work to be had in the people who visit public art spaces. The body language of their contemplative study of the artwork is a kind of mute ballet all its own, and no two patterns are alike. Watching the people who watch the art thus becomes a spectator sport of sorts, one which works to the advantage of the candid shooter, since people are more immersed in the paintings and thus a little less aware of themselves as regards the photographer. That leads to what I call “bodily candor”, a more relaxed quality in how they occupy their personal space.
Sometimes, as seen in the images in this article, your subject’s physical footprint is enough to express a full sense of the person without a trace of facial detail. In fact, I actually prefer this “no-face” approach, since it forces the viewer to supply some information of his own, making the photographs more interactive.
Try some gallerylab shots the next time you are hostage to a museum tour that was someone else’s idea of a good time. The exhibits themselves may disappoint, but the museum space and the people in it offer pretty consistent material.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ON THE DAY I WROTE THIS, the new Hasselblad XI-D-50c medium-format mirrorless camera was announced for pre-order. For the sake of history, it must be recorded here that the introductory price was $9,000.
For the body alone. Lenses (and batteries) not included.
I’m going to let that factoid sink in for a moment, so that you can (a) catch your breath/throw up/faint, or (b) find another blog whose author is impressed by this nonsense.
Now, for those who are still with us….
Let me state once more, for the record, that good photography is not defined by either academic training or dazzling hardware. There is no “camera”, in fact, outside yourself. To believe otherwise is to believe that a screwdriver can build a house. Tools are not talent. Moreover, schooling is not a pre-requisite for the creation of art. No one can sell you a camera better than your own brain, and no camera made today (or tomorrow) can save your photography if, like the Scarecrow, you don’t possess one.
I recently read a lament by someone who got his college degree in photography “back when that still meant something”, before the present age, in which, “apparently, everyone’s a photographer”. The sentiment expressed here is that making pictures is the exclusive domain of a few chosen High Priests Of Art, and that all who do not follow the path of the Jedi are, somehow, impure. Pretenders. Usurpers. Monkeys with hand grenades.
This viewpoint, with all its wonderfully elitist flair, was actually rendered obsolete by the introduction of the Kodak Brownie in 1900, since that’s the first time Everyman could pick up and wield a camera without express permission from the Ivy League. Want to see how little it matters how little we know before we hit the shutter? Do your own Google search for the number of world-changing photographers who were self-taught…who, like most of us, simply got better by making lots of bad pictures first. Start with Ansel Adams and work outward.
What does this have to do with Hasselblad’s shiny new Batmobile? Plenty. Because the idea that great images are created by great cameras goes hand-in-snotty-hand with the idea that only the enlightened few can make pictures at all. Never mind the fact that these concepts have been scorned to laughter by the actual history of the medium, as well as its dazzling present. The notion that art is for We, and appreciation is for Thee stubbornly persists, and probably always will. That’s why museum curators get paid more than the artists whose works they hang. Go figure.
But it’s tommyrot.
There is no camera except your own experienced and wise eye. Choose performance over pedigree. You don’t need four years in study hall or a $9.000 Hassie to make a statement. More importantly, if you have nothing to say, merely ponying up for toys and testimonials won’t get you into the club.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
NO SELF-RESPECTING TOURIST SPOT IS COMPLETE WITHOUT A STROLL THROUGH the local craft shops, those kitschy little warrens of handmade goods from pottery to stone trinkets. Whether they are called “studios”, “boutiques” or “trading posts” these collections of gypsy creativity are on the main and minor drags of every destination town, and they are occasionally real feasts for the eye…and, in turn, the camera.
The stuff on the tables and counters is usually a riot of color and texture, and thus somewhat low-hanging fruit for photogs. But you can miss out if you limit your framings merely to the finished product, especially if the backstage or work areas, where the magic truly happens, are open or, even better, an active part of the customer experience. Lots of small craft factories, art sites, galleries and festivals incorporate the actual making of their goods into the overall tourist trip, and I often find these staging areas far more interesting than what eventually makes it to the sales floor.
Everyone recalls the corner pizzerias that oriented their kitchens so that the guy flipping the dough was in a display window near the street. It was great passive show biz and the same “backstage” allure still works for handmade jewelry and other crafts. And, while witnessing the literal creation of objects is one kind of storytelling opportunity, a quieter one can occur when you cruise past vacant desks whose tops are cluttered with tools and decorative components. These kind of still-life subjects are ripe with potential, since they show what is about to happen. They’re also displays of someone’s personal work area, their most individual arrangement of space.
Sometimes the best part of a shopping experience is the unpolished part. Pictures are where you find them, and opportunities reveal themselves when you start looking beyond the obvious locations.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE POPULARLY-HELD VIEW OF THE HISTORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY makes the claim that, just as video killed the radio star, camera killed the canvas. This creaky old story generally floats the idea that painters, unable to compete with the impeccable recording machinery of the shutter, collectively abandoned realistic treatment of subjects and plunged the world into abstraction. It’s a great fairy tale, but a fairy tale nonetheless.
There just is no way that artists can be regimented into uniformly making the same sharp left turn at the same tick of the clock, and the idea of every dauber on the planet getting the same memo that read, alright guys, time to cede all realism to those camera jerks, after which they all started painting women with both eyes on the same side of their nose. As Theo Kojak used to say, “nevva happennnned…”
History is a little more, er, complex. Photography did indeed diddle about for decades trying to get its literal basics right, from better lenses to faster film to various schemes for lighting and effects. But it wasn’t really that long before shooters realized that their medium could both record and interpret reality, that there was, in fact, no such simple thing as “real” in the first place. Once we got hip to the fact that the camera was both truth teller and fantasy machine, photographers entered just as many quirky doors as did our painterly brothers, from dadaism to abstraction, surrealism to minimalism. And we evolved from amateurs gathering the family on the front lawn to dreamers without limit.
I love literal storytelling when a situation dictates that approach, but I also love pure, absolute arrangements of shape and light that have no story whatever to tell. As wonderful as a literal capture of subjects can be, I never shy away from making an image just because I can’t readily verbalize what it’s “about”. All of us have photos that say something to us, and, sometimes, that has to be enough. We aren’t always one thing or the other. Art can show absolutes, but it can’t be one.
There is always one more question to ask, one more stone to turn.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE MOST CONSISTENT CRITICISM I’VE CAUGHT ABOUT MY URBAN PHOTOGRAPHY over a lifetime is that it’s a little, well, clinical. Now, it’s true that I like to feature urban spaces in their purest form, or, as near the architect or planner’s original vision as possible. Certainly, the urban dwellings I shoot were designed to serve people, but I can’t resist occasionally showing these spaces as absolute designs, minus the visitors. I realize that, for some, this can render things a little antiseptic, but I don’t mean anything personal (impersonal?) by it.
Comparing notes with other shooters, I find that they, too, occasionally like to just show things that were designed for humans, only without…the humans. And I believe that parks, libraries, and museums can actually increase their profit by accommodating photographers in the same way that they might for their own marketing efforts.
Universally, when it’s time to do a photo feature on an historic site, the first thing that curators do is chase all the peasants off the property and give a photographer exclusive access to the place. You’ll see this to a lesser degree when people shoot real estate listings, and it makes perfect sense. The shooter has time to plan and experiment, without working around an endless supply of kids with Slurpees and moms with strollers. It’s not anti-human, it’s pro-photo.
So here’s the idea: why not dedicate a set amount of an attraction’s weekly tour schedule solely to solo photography tours? Calculate your place’s slow earning days and book those times in, say, half-hour increments, chunks in which the only persons inside the joint would be one employee and one photographer. I know many shooters who would gladly pay a bump of up to 100% of the going tour rate just to ensure privacy, and be allowed to effectively prepare shots.
Parks like Yellowstone, along with a growing list of museums and monuments have already crafted private tour options for photographers. It’s all found money,since all attractions have their dead seasons, weeks or months out of the year when they could throw a bowling ball across the place without hitting anything. Why not use those off-days as moneymakers? I love people, but if I’m visiting a place to have my one shot at capturing a magnificent structure, I hate settling for what I can frame around, versus what I could do if I just had the same access as National Geographic. Just once.
by MICHAEL PERKINS
SUNDAY MORNINGS AT THE LOS ANGELES COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART ARE A GAGGLE OF GIGGLES, a furious surge of activity for, and by, little people. Weekly craft workshops at LACMA are inventive, inclusive, and hands-on. If you can cut it, fold it, glue it, paint it, or assemble it, it’s there, with booths that feature encouraging help from slightly larger people and smiles all around. It is a fantastic training ground as well for photographing kids in their natural element.
A recent Sunday featured the rolling out of long strips of art paper into rows along one of the common sidewalks, with museum guides on bullhorn exhorting the young to create their own respective visions with paint and brush. The event itself was rich in possibility, as a hundred little dramas and crises unfolded along the wide, white canvasses. Here a furrowed brow, there an assist from Mom. Fierce concentration. Dedication of purpose. Sunshaded Picassos-in-waiting weighing the use of color, stroke, concept. A mass of masters, and plenty of chances for really decent images.
Most of these events are as fast as they are furious, and so, during their brief duration, you can go from photographic cornucopia to….where did everybody go? Sometimes it’s over so quickly that it’s really tempting to treat the entire thing like low-hanging fruit: a ton of kids pass before your eyes in a few minutes’ time, and you have only to stand and click away. Thing is, I’m a lifelong believer in arriving early and leaving late, simply because the unexpected bit of gold will drop into your lap when you troll around before the beginning or after the end of things. In the case of this museum “paint-in”, the participants scampered on to the next project in one big sweep, leaving their artwork behind like a ruined battlefield. And then, miracle of miracles, one lone girl wandered into the near center of this huge Pollack panorama and sat herself down. The event was over but the vibe was revived. I whispered thank you, photo gods, and framed to use the paintings as a visual lead-in to her. It couldn’t have been simpler, luckier, or happier.
When the “stage” on public events is being either set or struck, there are marvelous chances to peer a bit deeper.People are typically relaxed, less guarded. The feel of everything has an informality, even an intimacy. And sometimes a small child brings the gift of her spirit into the frame, and you remember why you keep doing this.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I’M VERY ACCUSTOMED TO BEING STOPPED IN MY TRACKS AT A PHOTOGRAPH THAT EVOKES A BYGONE ERA: we’ve all rifled through archives and been astounded by a vintage image that, all by itself, recovers a lost time.
It’s a little more unsettling when you experience that sense of time travel in a photo that you just snapped. That’s what I felt several weeks ago inside the main book trove at the Morgan Library in New York. The library itself is a tumble through the time barrier, recalling a period when robber barons spent millions praising themselves for having made millions. A time of extravagant, even vulgar displays of success, the visual chest-thumping of the Self-Made Man.
The private castles of Morgan, Carnegie, Hearst and other larger-than-life industrialists and bankers now stand as frozen evidence of their energy, ingenuity, and avarice. Most of them have passed into public hands. Many are intact mementos of their creators, available for view by anyone, anywhere. So being able to photograph them is not, in itself, remarkable.
No, it’s my appreciation of the fact that, today,unlike any previous era in photography, it’s possible to take an incredibly detailed, low-light subject like this and accurately render it in a hand-held, non-flash image. This, to a person whose life has spanned several generations of failed attempts at these kinds of subjects, many of them due to technical limits of either cameras, film, or me, is simply amazing. A shot that previously would have required a tripod, long exposures, and a ton of technical tinkering in the darkroom is just there, now, ready for nearly anyone to step up and capture it. Believe me, I don’t dispense a lot of “wows” at my age, over anything. But this kind of freedom, this kind of access, qualifies for one.
This was taken with my basic 18-55mm kit lens, as wide as possible to at least allow me to shoot at f/3.5. I can actually hand-hold fairly steady at even 1/15 sec., but decided to play it safe at 1/40 and boost the ISO to 1000. The skylight and vertical stained-glass panels near the rear are WINOS (“windows in name only”), but that actually might have helped me avoid a blowout and a tougher overall exposure. So, really, thanks for nothing.
On of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes, the one about Burgess Meredith inheriting all the books in the world after a nuclear war, with sufficient leisure to read his life away, was entitled “Time Enough At Last”. For the amazing blessings of the digital age in photography, I would amend that title by one word:
Light Enough…At Last.
by MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHIC SUBJECT MATTER, ONCE YOU’VE TRAINED YOURSELF TO SPOT IT, is always in ready supply. But, let’s face it: many of these opportunities are one-and-done. No repeats, no returns, no going back for another crack at it. That’s why, once you learn to make pictures out of almost nothing, it’s like being invited to a Carnival Cruise midnight buffet to find something that is truly exploding with possibilities, sites that actually increase in artistic value with repeat visits. I call such places “labs” because they seem to inspire an endless number of new experiments, fresh ways to look at and re-interpret their basic visual data.
My “labs” have usually been outdoor locations, such as Phoenix’ Desert Botanical Gardens or the all-too-obvious Central Park, places where I shoot and re-shoot over the space of many years to test lenses, exposure schemes, techniques, or, in the dim past, different film emulsions. Some places are a mix of interior and exterior and serve purely as arrangements of space, such as the Brooklyn Museum or the Library of Congress, where, regardless of exhibits or displays, the contours and dynamics of light and form are a workshop all in themselves. In fact, some museums are more beautiful than the works they house, as in the case of Guggenheim in NYC and its gorgeous west coast equivalent, The Getty museum in Los Angeles.
Between the gleaming white, glass-wrapped buildings of this enormous arts campus and its sinuous, sprawling gardens (not to mention its astounding hilltop view), the Getty takes one complete visit just to get yourself visually oriented. Photographically, you will find a million isolated tableaux within its multi-acre layout upon subsequent trips, so there is no end to the opportunities for exploring light, scale, abstraction, and four full seasons of vibrant color. Not a color fan? Fine. The Getty even dazzles in monochrome or muted hues. It’s like Toys ‘R’ Us for photogs.
I truly recommend laying claim to a laboratory of your own, a place that you can never truly be “finished with”. If the place is rich enough in its basic components, your umpteenth trip will be as magical as your first, and you can use that one location as a growth graph for your work. Painters have their muses. Shooter Harry Calahan made a photographic career out of glorifying every aspect of his wife. We all declare our undying love for something.
And it will show in the work.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY MAJOR CITY AROUND THE WORLD THAT BOASTS BOTANIC GARDENS OR PLANT CONSERVATORIES HAS EXPERIENCED THE STRANGE MIXTURE of biology, art, and science created by the glass installations of Dale Chihuly. Beginning as a starving student in Venice in the late ’60’s, Chihuly has carved out a unique niche for himself as the premier maestro of art glass creations, marked by strange, venous bulbs, eerie tendrils, and massive towers of color, all wrought together in a psychedelic weave of texture and (frequently) enormous scale. If Peter Max blew glass instead of spewing paint, he’d be Dale Chihuly. Like Max, Chihuly has benefited greatly from the ever-hot debate over the permanence or value of his work. And if you don’t like it, he, in the words of Liberace, cries all the way to the bank.
For the botanical denizens of the non-profit universe, however, the Chihuly phenomenon does have one indisputable trait: it puts butts in the seats. Gardens the world over record insane increases in attendance far beyond their normal “fan base” when Dale’s gorgon-like creations hit town and go mano-a-mano with their daisies and daffodils. For photographers, the juxtaposition of the organic and the “alt-ganic” is irresistible, and, here in the southwest, where sun is all, the extreme effects of our desert light give Chihuly’s glassworks a supernatural quality.
The Arizona “golden hour” just before final sunset produces very deep and intense color, and the Chihuly works installed at Phoenix’ Desert Botanical Garden catch it like neon prisms. Go a little further and add, say, a polarizing filter to this natural amplification of color, and the hues go into overdrive. It’s Golden Hour on steroids.
The three glass “bushes” in the above frame, installed permanently at the DBG’s guest arrival area, are high enough above average terrain to act as light blotters for the late afternoon light. The addition of the polarizing filter seems to double the effect, although it will deepen and darken shadows in other parts of the images, and so exposure choices become a mite trickier. In this case, the striated clouds overhead also benefited from the tweak as they stood in sharper contrast against the sky, but, full disclosure, that part was dumb luck.
But hey, even dumb luck can make you a little smarter. And buy you a bigger chunk of “luck” next time. Does Dale do it for me as an artist? Does it even matter? His stuff creates light opportunities, and you can serve me up a plate of that anytime.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS A DECIDED BIAS IN THE CONCEPT OF THE NEW YEARS’ RESOLUTION TOWARD THE NEGATIVE. Since we often define ourselves in terms of what we haven’t yet perfected in ourselves, many resolutions revolve around losing something (weight), stopping something (binge-watching Ren & Stimpy) or rooting something icky out of our personality or habit structure (insert your own wish list here).
Fair enough. But, in order for us to grow, we also need to resolve to add, to enhance, to amplify the best part of ourselves. And, for photographers, I can’t think of a single more compelling resolution than the pledge to see better and develop our expressive vocabulary in the new year. We already have the toys, God knows. It has never been easier to get your hands on image-making gear or to disseminate the images that you manage to create. Photography has reached its all-time high-water mark for democratization, with 2013 showing us that gasp-inducing, heart-stopping pictures can and will be made by anyone, anywhere. There is no longer an artificial barrier between pro and amateur, just a subtler one between those of us who have practiced eyes and those of us (nearly all of us) that need to tone our seeing muscles a bit tighter.
Photography can obscure or reveal, defining or defying clarity as we choose. A resolution to keep seeing, to open our eyes wider, is more important than resolving to “take more interesting pictures”, “do fewer self-indulgent selfies” or “try all the cool filters on Instagram”, since it goes to the heart of what this marvelous art can do better than any other in the history of mankind. What can be better than promising ourself to always be hungry, always be shooting, always be straining ourselves to the breaking point?
For me, a good year is when I can look back over my shoulder during the last waning moments of December 31st and see at least some small, measurable distance between where I’m standing and where I stood last January 1st. Sometimes the distance is measured in micro-inches, other years in feet or even yards. There are no guarantees, nor can there be: human experience, and what we draw forth from it, is variable, and there will be years of no crops as well as years of bumper harvests.
But let us resolve to see, and see as fearlessly as we can. The Normal Eye has always been about its stated journey from “taking” pictures to “making” them, acknowledging that it’s seldom a straight-line path to perfection, and, in fact, we learn more from our failures than our successes. Happy New Year.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOMETIMES THROWING EVERYTHING INTO THE POT MAKES FOR BETTER STEW. Yeah, of course a simple bowl of tomato soup can be elegant, understated. But so can pitching every stray ingredient into the mix and hoping the carrots play nice with the asparagus. Matter of taste depending on one’s mood.
So it goes with street photography. Some insist that isolating a single story, a singular face, a tightly framed little drama is the way to go. And that is certainly true much of the time. But so can casting a wide net, framing a grand, interactive ballet of conflicting lives and destinations. It’s like the concentrated, two-man drama of Waiting For Godot versus the teeming crowd scenes of The Ten Commandments. Both vibes come from the street. Just depends on what story we’re telling today.
From the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, the great street photog of the mid-20th century, I learned to love the seeming randomness of crowds and their competing destinies. HCB was a genius at showing that something wonderful was about to happen, and I love to see him capturing the moment before there even is a moment. His still images fairly beg to be set into motion: you are dying to see how this all comes out. If HCB is new to your eye, I beg you, seek him out. His work is a revelation, a quiet classroom of seeing sense.
I have posted both quiet stories and big loud parades to these pages. Both have their appeal, and both demand a discipline and a selective eye, which means I have a few light years’ worth of learning before me in both areas. That’s the great thing about art. You can’t get done. You can be on the way, but you will not get there. Not if you’re honest with yourself.
For the viewer, myself included, you have to go beyond “snap looking” which is the audience’s equivalent of “snapshooting”. Some images require that you linger, just as some wines are to be sipped instead of guzzled. Slowing down when viewing a frame is the best tribute to whatever pauses the photographer took in creating it in the first place. This picture business is truly a shared project between creator and user.
Gosh, I feel all brotherly and warm-hearted today.
Sort of an urge to be part of the crowd.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S GUARANTEED. OVER OUR LIFETIMES, YOU AND I WILL TAKE REMARKABLE PHOTOGRAPHS.
There just won’t be a lot of them.
And that’s very good news.
Ansel Adams once remarked that “twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop”.
That’s right. Twelve.
Now, given the percentage of the massive Adams output that actually turned out to be flat-out amazing, the reverse math for how many “close, but no cigar” frames he shot would be staggering. And humbling. This after all, is a man who “experimented” with color for over thirty years, only to lament, near the end of his life that “I have yet to see–much less produce–a color photograph that fulfills my concepts of the objectives of art.” Bear in mind, also, that this lament is not coming from a hipster Instram-ing artsy close-ups of what he had for lunch.
What does this mean for us? It means that there is a number out there, the figure that enumerates how many flops we will have to be content with in order to get our own, small yield of golden eggs.
Learning to live with that number is the best hope have of getting closer to what we can be.
I can’t measure my work against anyone else’s, since “that way lies madness”. I can only mark how far I am along my journey by the distance between what made me smile today and the stuff I used to be able to look at without suppressing a strong gag reflex. Guess what: the same work that makes me want to gouge out my eyes with soup spoons, in the present, is often the exact same work that made my chest swell with pride, just the day before yesterday.
And that’s the way it should be. If your style is so wonderfully complete that it can’t be further improved on, then smash your camera on the street below and move on to something else that has the potential to either spank your ego or kick your creative butt. We’re not in this to get comfortable.
Ansel Adams one more time:
There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.
Yes, huzzah, what he said. Here’s to staying sharp.
And hard to please.
follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye and on Flickr at
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
YOU’VE HEARD THE JOKE ABOUT THE WRITER WHO TAGGED A NOTE TO A FRIEND BY SAYING, “If I’d had more time, I’d have written you a shorter letter”. That line speaks volumes about how we increase the power of communication by leaving things out. Just as great books are not so much written as re-written, so photographs often gain in eloquence when everything but the essence of the message is pared away.
It means being your own best editor, and, to do that, you have to be able to hate on your own work a little bit. Tough love and all that. Spare the picture and spoil the image. No sacred cows, just because they are your cows. There is no avoiding the fact that no real art comes about unless you take direct, often brutal action, to overcome the imperfections of a raw first effort. You have to intervene, again and again, in the shaping of your conception.
You can probably infer from all this that I am no fan of automodes, or of any other abdication of responsibility that lets a device, for Pete’s sake, dictate the outcome of image-making.
A few basic truths to keep before you:
Your camera is a machine with an eye attached.
You are an eye with a brain attached.
One of you is supposed to be in charge.
Guess which one.
When we merely snap a scene, freezing an arrangement of whatever we see in frame, we are only making a record. Creativity comes with abstraction, of exploring what is beyond the obvious cause-and-effect. The standard approach to showing things should actually be called the “average” approach. Look, here’s a tree, and, below, here is its shadow. Behold, here’s a scenic object next to the water, and, in the water, a reflection of that object. This simple reproduction of “reality” involves craft, to be sure, but something that falls short of art. Abstracting, adding or taking away something, and actively partnering with the viewer’s imagination take the photograph beyond a mere recording.
And that, boys and girls, is where the “art” part comes in.
Take away even a single obvious element and you change the discussion, for better or worse. Does the tree always have to be accompanied by its shadow? Does the mountain and its reflection always need to be presented as a complete “set”? It’s interesting to take even the “perfect” or “balanced” shots we cherish most and again take the scissors to part of them. Can the picture speak louder if we trim away the obvious? Can the image turn out to be something if it just stops trying to be everything?
The easiest abstractions come from changing small things, and editing can often, oddly, be an act of completion. Pictures taken in the moment are convenient, but too many images are trusted to the ease of leaning on automodes, and almost no photo is fully realized “straight out of the camera.” Believe this if you believe nothing else: nothing truly excellent ever results from putting your imagination in neutral. You have to decide whether you or the machine is the principal picture-taker.
That decision decides everything else.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR THESE PAGES, IT WAS NEVER MY VISION TO MERELY POST PICTURES. Not, at least, without some kind of context. Just meeting a regular deadline with the “picture of the day” held as little interest for me as maintaining a diary, an oppressive regularity that I have resisted my entire life. For the most part, the images on THE NORMAL EYE are here to anchor my thoughts about what it feels like to be enticed, seduced, enthralled, and, yes, disappointed by photography, to caption the frames with some semblance of the creative process, at least as I had the poor power to see it at the time.Like all blogs, it is written on my own very personal terms. I am always thrilled to harvest reaction and comment, since, as Ike Turner once sang, “was my plan from the very began”. But the important thing is to get the thoughts right, or at least to use them as a guide to the shots. Thus, the mission is neither words nor pictures, but some kind of handshake symbiosis between the two.
However, since day one, I have reserved several gallery pages on which visual info is pretty much all there is, since I also believe that it is important to react to photographs on a purely visceral basis. If the blog is the main hall in the house, think of these as the rooms down the hall that you never thought to explore.
I have tried to give each gallery its own general feel, since there are different “themes” which motivate our taking of pictures, and I thought, for this post, it might be helpful to underscore those themes just enough to justify how they were organized. I have now also given them specific names instead of the A-B-C tags they had previously.
Here’s the new rundown:
Gallery A is now “HDR”, since I think that this process affords very specific benefits for reproducing the entire range of visible light in a way that, until recently, has been impracticable for many shooters. No tool is suitable for every kind of shooting situation, but HDR comes close to reproducing what the eye sees, and can enhance detail in fascinating ways. There is a lot controversy over its best use, so, like everywhere else on this blog, your opinions are invited.
The former B gallery is a collection of impulse shots. All of these images were taken in the moment, on a whim, with only instinct to guide me. No real formal prep went into the making of any of them, as they were the product of those instants when something just feels right, and you try to snag it before it vanishes. We’ll call these “SNAP JUDGEMENTS”.
And finally, the photos formerly known as Gallery “C” are now renamed “NATURAL STATE”, as these portraits are all shot using available light, captured without flash or the manipulation of light through reflectors, umbrellas, or other tools.
Let me state here that your participation in this forum was always the centerpiece of my doing it in the first place, and your ideas and suggestions have always inspired me to try to be worthy of the space I’m taking up. I also have enjoyed linking back to your individual sites and visions. It’s a great way to learn.
So please know that, when you click the “like” button at the bottom of these posts, or take the time to type a comment, it does help me see what works, as well as what needs to be done better. I don’t believe that art can grow in a vacuum, and I thank everyone for giving these pages shape and form.
And thanks for exploring all the rooms in my house.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE LAST SUNDAY EDITION OF THE NEW YORK TIMES FOR 2012 features its annual review of the year’s most essential news images, a parade of glory, challenge, misery and deliverance that in some ways shows all the colors of the human struggle. Plenty of material to choose from, given the planet’s proud display of fury in Hurricane Sandy, the full scope of evil on display in Syria, and the mad marathon of American politics in an electoral year. But photography is only half about recording, or framing, history. The other half of the equation is always about creating worlds as well as commenting on them, on generating something true that doesn’t originate in a battlefield or legislative chamber. That deserves a year-end tribute of its own, and we all have images in our own files that fulfill the other 50% of photography’s promise.
This year, for example, we saw a certain soulfulness, even artistry, breathed into Instagram and, by extension, all mobile app imaging. Time ran a front cover image of Sandy’s ravages taken from a pool of Instagramers, in what was both a great reportorial photo and an interpretive shot whose impact goes far beyond the limits of a news event. Time and again this year, I saw still lifes, candids, whimsical dreams and general wonderments of the most personal type flooding the social media with shots that, suddenly, weren’t just snaps of the sandwich you had for lunch today saturated with fun filters. It was a very strong year for something personal, for the generation of complete other worlds within a frame.
I love broad vistas and sweeping visual themes so much that I have to struggle constantly to re-anchor myself to smaller things, closer things, things that aren’t just scenic postcards on steroids, although that will always be a strong draw for me. Perhaps you have experienced the same pull on yourself…that feeling that, whatever you are shooting, you need to remember to also shoot…..something else. It is that reminder that, in addition to recording, we are also re-ordering our spaces, assembling a custom selection of visual elements within the frame. Our vision. Our version. Our “other 50%.”
My wife and I crammed an unusual amount of travel into 2012, providing me with no dearth of “big game” to capture…from bridges and skyscrapers to the breathlessly vast arrays of nature. But always I need to snap back to center….to learn to address the beauty of detail, the allure of little composed universes. Those are the images I agonize over the most at years’ end, as if I am poring over thumbnails to see a little piece of myself , not just in the mountains and broad vistas, but also in the grains of sand, the drops of dew, the minutes within the hours.
Year-end reviews are, truly, about the big stories. But in photography, we are uniquely able to tell the little ones as well. And how well we tell them is how well we mark that we were here, not just as observers, but as participants.
It’s not so much how well you play the game, but that you play.
Happy New Year, and many thanks for your attention, commentary, and courtesy in 2012.
- 10 social mobile photography trends for 2013 (davidsmcnamara.typepad.com)
- Old-Timer Joins Instagram, Schools Everyone With Poignant Flood Photos (wired.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
A COMMONLY HELD VIEW OF SELF-PORTRAITURE is that it epitomizes some kind of runaway egotism, an artless symbol of a culture saturated in narcissistic navel-gazing. I mean, how can “us-taking-a-picture-of-us” qualify as anything aesthetically valid or “pure”? Indeed, if you look at the raw volume of quickie arm’s length shots that comprise the bulk of self-portrait work, i.e., here’s me at the mountains, here’s me at the beach, etc., it’s hard to argue that anything of our essence is revealed by the process of simply cramming our features onto a view screen and clicking away…..not to mention the banality of sharing each and every one of these captures ad nauseum on any public forum available. If this is egotism, it’s a damned poor brand of it. If you’re going to glorify yourself, why not choose the deluxe treatment over the economy class?
I would argue that self-portraits can be some of the most compelling images created in photography, but they must go beyond merely recording that we were here or there, or had lunch with this one or that one. Just as nearly everyone has one remarkable book inside them, all of us privately harbor a version of ourselves that all conventional methods of capture fail to detect, a visual story only we ourselves can tell. However, we typically carry ourselves through the world shielded by a carapace of our own construction, a social armor which is designed to keep invaders out, not invite viewers in. This causes cameras to actually aid in our camouflage, since they are so easy to lie to, and we have become so self-consciously expert at providing the lies.
The portraits of the famous by Annie Liebovitz, Richard Avedon, Herb Ritts and other all-seeing eyes (see links to articles below) have struck us because they have managed to penetrate the carapace, to change the context of their subjects in such dramatic ways that they convince us that we are seeing them, truly seeing them, for the first time. They may only be doing their own “take” on a notable face, but this only makes us hunger after more interpretations on the theme, not fewer. Key to many of the best portraits is the location of their subjects within specific spaces to see how they and the spaces feed off each other. Sometimes the addition of a specific object or prop creates a jumping off point to a new view. Often a simple reassignment of expression (the clown as tragedian, the adult as child, etc) forces a fresh perspective.
As for the self-portrait, an artistic assignment that I feel everyone should perform at least once (as an intentional design, not a candid snap), there is a wealth of new information gleaned from even an indifferent result. Shooters can act as lab rats for all the ways of seeing people that we can think of to play at, serving as free training modules for light, exposure, composition, form. I am always reluctant to enter into these projects, because like everyone else, I balk at the idea of centering my expression on myself. Who, says my Catholic upbringing, do I think I am, that I might be a fit subject for a photograph? And what do I do with all the social conditioning that compels me to sit up straight, suck in my gut, and smile in a friendly manner?
One can only wonder what the great figures of earlier centuries might have chosen to pass along about themselves if the self-portrait has existed for them as it does for us. What could the souls of a Lincoln, a Jefferson, a Spinoza, an Aquinas, have said to us across the gulf of time? Would this kind of introspection been seen by them as a legacy or an exercise in vanity? And would it matter?
In the above shot, taken in a flurry of attempts a few days ago, I am seemingly not “present” at the proceedings, apparently lost in thought instead of engaging the camera. Actually, given the recent events in my life, this was the one take where I felt I was free of the constraints of smiling, posing, going for the shot, etc. I look like I can’t focus, but in catching me in the attempt to focus, this image might be the only real one in the batch. Or not. I may be acting the part of the tortured soul because I like the look of it. The point is, at this moment, I have chosen what to depict about myself. Accept or reject it, it’s my statement, and my attempt to use this platform to say something, on purpose. You and I can argue about whether I succeeded, but maybe that’s all art is, anyway.
- Avedon For Breakfast (fabsugar.com)
- Getty Center Exhibits Herb Ritts and Celebrity Portraits (ginagenis.wordpress.com)
- Annie Leibovitz: ‘Creativity is like a big baby that needs to be nourished’ (guardian.co.uk)
IN ITS FIRST DAYS, photography took on the inward, personal aspect of painting, both in its selection of pictorial subjects and in its method of presentation, which was designed to legitimize the new science by aping the look of the canvas. Only by actively engaging the world and invading every corner of it in an outward search for truth or beauty did picture-making break free of the painter’s constraints. Once Matthew Brady’s stark images of the Civil War froze that conflict’s horror on glass, at least one leg of the photographer’s stool rested on a confrontation of reality.
In the 20th century, as shooters toggled between deliberate, arranged images and pure documentation, the “face” of the public became an unwitting tool in the artist’s toolbox. Human manifestations of delight, horror, revelation and ruin told the story of the new era even more graphically than the correspondent’s pen, creating some of the most indelible images of modern times. Indeed, there seemed to be an unspoken pact between the artist and his “prey” to the effect that their lives, like ours, could be endlessly recorded, interpreted, interrupted and enshrined for the sake of our “art”.
But is that era coming to an end? And, for photography, what lies beyond?
In recent years, both public and private institutions have begun to disallow photography in some venues that had historically been open to it, including retail stores, parks, malls and other previously “free” spaces. Some of this is the inevitable aftermath of our recent obsession with security, a kind of whoa-slow-down against the pervasive replication of all aspects of one’s identity. Perhaps, several gazillion camera phone snaps and gotcha YouTubes later, we have reached a tipping point of sorts, a world in which people desperately seek a firewall around their secret selves.
Even as certain nondescript individuals shamelessly seek the spotlight of reality shows and paparazzi-fed ego gratification, many more are feeling an unfamiliar new yen for shelter from the ubiquitous flash of fame. In such a time, the concept of commentary or “street” photography faces one of its most daunting challenges. What is permissible in an image, now? Are what were once the eloquently revealing truths of spontaneous snaps now a kind of voyeurism, a “reality porn” peek into peoples’ lives to which we have no right?
Without the harrowing chronicle of Dorothea Lange’s dust-bowl refugees, would we understand less of the horrific impact of the Great Depression? Was she underscoring an important message or exploiting her subjects’ suffering? Absent Larry Burrows’ grunt’s-eye-view of Vietnam for Life magazine, would we have missed a valuable insight into a war our government might just have gladly kept under wraps? We may have already reached the point where some of us, embarrassed for the intrusive nature of our craft, have begun to self-censor, to mentally de-select some images before we even shoot them. Such prior restraint may be the height of sensitivity, but it spells paralysis for art.