By MICHAEL PERKINS
I REMEMBER BEING FASCINATED as a child by the 1963 film The Birdman Of Alcatraz, based loosely on the life of murderer Robert Stroud, whose accumulated crimes drew him a life sentence, much of it spent in solitary confinement. The movie, starring Burt Lancaster, centered on Stroud’s almost accidental introduction to birds, an improvised pastime which blossomed into an extensive and self-taught study of ornithology. The story’s biggest impact on me was the idea that someone could center on the smallest scintilla of hope, something others around you might ignore or simply not see at all, and that such small things might lead beyond mere survival to a kind of separate peace, even wisdom. In retrospect, I probably should have chosen a better model than that of a total psychopath. Still, the idea of being able to successfully navigate isolation was one that occasionally fascinated me over a lifetime. It’s also come to mind a great deal over the past year.
To paraphrase a cliched expression, we are all Burt Lancaster now; we have all learned to place greater focus on smaller worlds, and it is no accident that one of the biggest growth industries during our Global Great Hibernation has been the hobby of birdwatching. It’s cheap, it’s relatively easy to break into, and it’s as close as your window. More importantly, it’s a reassurance that life, or some semblance of it, has gone on, even if all we can do is watch as it wafts by. Like Stroud, we are all improvising to reduce the ache of greatly reduced circumstances. And like prisoners everywhere, confined behind either tangible or figurative bars, we are able, maybe for the first time, to see, in depth, something that was all but invisible to our previous system of seeing.
For photographers, including this one, birds can be a metaphor for many things we already value about our art. Color, motion, texture, context, even a kind of portraiture…all are addressed in trying to assign traits or personalities to flying creatures. Working from the long, empty days, we slow down and deepen our observational powers. We view things in finer depths and degrees, in inches rather than miles now. I will freely admit that my own photographic coverage of birds had been, during The Before Times, confined to the easiest, most obvious captures; flocks caught accidentally in a vast beach vista; raptors in zoo cages; the occasional comic shot of a gull stealing a hot dog, etc. The quarantine has altered all that, stretching time like taffy, elongating our implementation of any undertaking from hours to days. But this is not an effort to overprescribe a general therapy for everyone; your “birds” may be furniture, the veins of a leaf, still lifes of your accumulated buffalo nickels. This is why we have congregations of varying denominations. While I am worshipping at the first temple of the ruby-throated sparrow, you may bow your head at the Community Church of the Holy Art Deco Ashtray or some such. The idea is that photography always benefits from patience and deliberation. Snap shots are marvelous manifestations of our impulses, but they are not the products of quiet contemplation.
My point is that there is room in your photography for both the spontaneous and the deliberative. In my case, tiny tweeters have become a kind of surrogate for human subjects, as I find myself searching their faces for traces of motive, emotion, even joy. Unlike the Birdman of Alcatraz, most of us will eventually be sprung, released back into the larger work yard, hopefully having learned a little more about playing well with others. And the pictures we made behind walls will be, in lasting ways, capable of taking grander flight.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF YOU REALLY THINK YOU KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHY, take a moment to consider what you typically shoot. After all, there comes a point, with practice and experience, at which you will get pretty good at making pictures of the things you’re used to making pictures of. Shoot enough skyscrapers and you can eventually become The Skyscraper Guy. But then, in the pursuit of humility, start making 100% of your shots of something about which you know next to nothing. Better still, shoot things that seldom, if ever, pique your interest….and then see how you do.
I am on record in these pages as admitting that I am always playing defense when it comes to nature work. It’s not my first interest, and it’s far from my comfort zone. However, I do derive enjoyment from the thought that I might ,at some point, have a chance of getting better at it. That’s not the same as actually getting better at it, but…..
Over the last five years, I’ve begun to dip my toe into work with birds, mostly because it allows me and my birder mate to do more things together. However, on many expeditions in search of the Rump-Roasted Titbill or the Green-Throated Flipwing I am as likely to shoot the surrounding wildlife as I am the official quarry, simply because I know, at some level, that my success with birds is random and unpredictable. In short, I may actually have the wrong personality to be good at capturing the little darlings.
First of all, I only possess the cardinal (sorry) virtue of patience in limited supply. That’s not helpful, since, as I hinted at the start, shooting outside your comfort zone will instantaneously reverse-morph you back to the clueless twelve-year-old you were when you first picked up a camera. And yes, bird photography is that different, in that it has many exclusive techniques that no other kind of photography will completely prepare you for. And then there is the expense. Basic cameras will occasionally (underscore that word) bring you good results, but the precision required for the best bird work, the “ahh”-inducing shots, can only be had for money. A good deal of it. It’s just a fact that we’ll never know how many of us would have become excellent bird photographers simply because many cannot afford the gear necessary to produce the best results. That’s not sour grapes, no more than it is whiny to say that I can’t explore the surface of the moon with a $100 pair of binoculars.
So what’s to do? Well, decent pictures can be made with modest equipment, but the work will be harder, and the accumulation of skill will be exponentially slower. The bird shots that I truly like come from approaching birds as I might a human subject, that is, by observing behavior long enough to get a sense of the bird as a “person” the way I might with a portrait subject. The more time I spend with an individual bird, the more I convince myself that I am locked into his thoughts or reactions. Of course, I could just be crazed with the heat (always wear a hat), but that mindset just barely gives me the courage to try something I will likely not do very well for some time to come. Humility, on the wing. Cool.
Now, can I go take a picture of a skyscraper?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT NEVER FAILS. You go to the grocery store for a carton of milk and come back with salsa, canned pineapple and half a pound of bologna. You may not have even known you “needed” the additional items, but, son of a gun, that extra large salsa is on sale. And, just like that, a quick stop becomes a shopping trip.
Photography is sort of like that.
You head out with specific objectives in mind, not thinking that fate has other plans, and will gently incline you in their direction. “Gentle”…like a freight train. In the case of a recent bird walk, my photographic plan “A” may seem odd to the average observer, in that it was to walk around with birders and not take any bird photos.
In my defense, I was already halfway through an extended birding weekend, accompanied by my wife and other serious spotters in a variety of southern Arizona locales. Moreover, even though I possess zero talent and little inclination in the study of all things airborne, I had nonetheless nailed a few easy exposures of very tame birds in the habit of eating very slowly on feeders near very large throngs of people…..basically zoo shooting with better singing. But the morning in question was different. Spotting birds in the wild is for grown-ups, and my infantile attention span is often drawn off center by the woods or canyon or, in this case, woodsy canyon that houses the various winged wonders. The spotters can spend hours arguing over the nomenclature of whatever they’ve flushed out of the foliage. For me, the foliage is why I came.
Thus, on this morning, I was sporting a 24mm wide angle to highlight the contours and curves of Ramsey Canyon, although I also had shoved my 300mm zoom inside a fanny pack as an act of pure superstition. Thus, the appropriate division of labor for the outing was established: Bird People watch birds. Tree Hugger tags along and shoots trees. Then we came upon a small footbridge surrounded by a small pack of mule deer, feeding at a level of relaxation that can only occur when you become accustomed to bipeds in goofy hats routinely traipsing through your backyard. One of the Bird People, knowing a camera nut was in their midst, gave me a heads-up. A desperate minute of crouching, zipping, fumbling and mild cursing later, I had managed to attach the 300, worrying all the time that something or someone would spook the group.
After that fear was allayed by the deer’s total state of chill, however, I was overcome by a new emotion, something I can only characterize as gratitude. I have had many encounters with deer in the wild over the years, but in each case I had only had scant seconds to try to capture anything. Here, suddenly, I was presented with a group so docile that I could walk to within twenty feet of them and have the most precious gift, the gift of time, with which to plan shots. The female seen here was intent on staying in clear sunlight next to a tree, while her male companions were gamboling inand out of the dappled shade at too great a speed for accurate metering, so, yeah, I went the easier route.
The point is that the situation allowed me to shoot twenty or more frames and have time in between to make an assessment as to what might succeed. It was an astounding luxury, a rarity among rarities, and my photos became my prayer of thanks.
Come for the forest, stay for the deer.
Or: come for the milk, stay for the salsa, pineapple, and bologna.