By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN HIS WONDERFUL 1960 ROAD JOURNAL, TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY, John Steinbeck, author of The Grapes Of Wrath, Of Mice And Men and other essential American novels, laments the passing of a kind of America in much the same way that a roving photographer might. “I wonder”, he wrote as he motored through one vanishing frontier after another, “why progress looks so much like destruction.” That’s a sentiment that many a shooter has experienced as he pans his viewfinder over the various fading scenes of a constantly changing nation. Steinbeck sang his ode to these vaporized hopes on the printed page. We freeze their vanishings in a box.
However, capturing changes in a rambling big hulk of a country encompasses more than merely mourning the loss of a forest or the paving of a paradise. Photographic testimony needs to be made on the evolution of even the America we feel is vulgar, or ugly, or strange, as well as on the disappearance of the buffalo. There can be a visual poignancy in seeing even our strangest, most misbegotten features dissolving away, and great picture opportunities exist in both the beautiful and the tawdry.
One of the strangest visual cultures that we see cracking and peeling away across the USA is the culture of eating. The last hundred years have seen the first marriage between just taking a meal and deliberately creating architecture that is aimed at marketing that process. Neon signs, giant Big Boys shouldering burgers, garish arrows pointing the way to the drive-through….it’s crude and strange and wonderful, all at the same time, and even more so as its various icons start to fall by the wayside.
The Courtesy Coffee Shop, baking in the desert sun just beyond the Arizona border in Blythe, California, is one such odd rest stop. Its mid-century design, so edgy at the start of space ships and family station wagons, creaks now with age, a museum to cheeseburgers and onion rings of yesteryear. Its waitresses look like refugees from an episode of Alice. It recalls the glory days of flagstone and formica. And they’ve been doing the bottomless coffee cup thing there since the Eisenhower administration.
Steinbeck, were he on the road again today, might not give a jot about the passing of the Courtesy into history, but restaurants can be interesting mile markers on the history trail just as much as mountains and lakes. Besides, when’s the last time a mountain whipped up a Denver omelet for you?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S TV-DOCTOR SHOW CLICHE NUMBER ONE. The frantic ER crew valiantly works upon a patient who is coding, pulling out every tool in a desperate search for a discernible pulse. Then the close-up on the earnest nurse: “He’s gone.” and the final pronouncement by the exhausted resident: “Okay, anyone have the time? I’m calling it….”
That’s pretty much what it’s like to try to rescue a lousy photograph by extraordinary means…tweaking, sweetening, processing, whatever you call the ultimately futile emergency measures. Sometime the unthinkable is obvious: the picture’s a goner…no pulse, no soul, no life.
Cue Bones McCoy: It’s dead, Jim.
I have made my share of ill-advised interventions in the name of “saving” photos that I was unwilling to admit were lifeless, pointless, just a plain waste of time. You’ve done it too, I’m sure. Trying to give some kind of artistic mouth-to-mouth to an image that just wasn’t a contender to begin with. It was a bunch of recorded light patterns, okay, but it damn sure wasn’t a photograph. Smear as much lipstick on a pig as you want….it’s still a pig.
The above image shows the worst of this pathology. I wanted to show the charm of an old bed-and-breakfast in the gloriously beautiful little town of Pacific Grove, located just up the peninsula from Monterey in California (see image at left). But everything that could have made the image memorable, or even usable, was absent. The color, a cool buttercup yellow, is common to many town dwellings. In the warm glow of dawn or the late waning, dappled light of late afternoon, it can be charming, even warm. In the mid-day light, weak, withered. Then there was the total lack of a composition. The picture was taken in a second, and looked it.
So, angry at having failed at the “charming” look I had gone for, and unable to make the backlighting on the house work for me, I went into Photomatix (usually a very solid HDR tool) and started, almost angrily, to take revenge on the damned thing. If I can’t make you pretty, I’ll make you magnificently ugly, hahaha…. Seriously, I was pretty far into the journey from “happy little house” to “creepy little twilight creep castle” before realizing there was nothing to be extracted from this picture. No amount of over-glop, taffy-pulling or prayer would magically compensate for a central core concept that just wasn’t there. Like it or not, the pig was always going to show through the lipstick.
Sometimes you just gotta declare the unlucky patient in front of you dead, and try to save the kid on the next gurney over.
This blog was always supposed to be about choices, both good and bad, and how we learn from each. I have shared my failures before, and firmly believe that the only honest conversation comes from admitting that sometimes we make colossal errors in judgement, and that a fair examination of even our “misses” is more important than an endless parade of our “hits”.
Photography is not about consistent genius. It’s about extracting something vital from something flawed.
Being able to identify when we have fallen short is the most important skill, the most essential tool.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE SURE THING ABOUT TAKING IN “THE SIGHTS” AT THE AVERAGE TOURIST ATTRACTION. You will be channeled, herded, if you will, toward exactly what the proprietors want you to see. This insures most people their coveted “Kodak Moment”, with Mom and the kids standing at the precisely picturesque sweet spot at the cathedral, the ruins, the monument, the mountain, etc. In fact, Kodak worked with parks for years to actually post signs near such perfect vistas, a polite way of yelling OVER HERE, STUPID at passersby. Thanks for the flash cards, guys.
Obviously this attempt to guide visitors to the “good stuff” can result in the occasional great image. But you and I know that, for the most part, it amounts to the completion of a homework assignment. You know, like the opposite of fun, spontaneity, um, photography.
Tomorrow, class, bring a picture of yourself standing in front of a famous landmark. And remember to smile.
I’m a big one for wandering away from the tour group….not so far as to wander aimlessly into a scary forest full of monsters, just far enough to take in the entire area while the guide drones on.
I’m not so much interested in what’s available to photograph as I am in what else is available to photograph.
Sometimes, of course, you are better off just taking your approved thirty seconds in front of the waterfall and moving on. Other times you hit something, sometimes by just looking thirty feet further.
Do I have an example? Thought you’d never ask…
There is an over-hyped old house-turned-souvie shop in La Jolla, California (one of the most gorgeous coastal towns in the west) that sits atop a subterranean cave which looks out onto the ocean. Once inside the shop, the able-boded (and those who do not suffer claustrophobia) pay to enter an extremely dark, steep, damp and cramped staircase that takes them down below the house to the cave.
Now, for a guy with a camera constantly hanging from his neck, taking anything like a usable shot in this crimped cavern is largely a crap shoot, since light is, let us say, at a premium. So the “officially” cool thing, was, for me, frustrating to say the least, and I trudged up The Staircase From Hell (my knees aren’t what they used to be) to re-enter the shop at the earth’s surface. So far, so pointless.
While my wife performed her mandatory inspection of the store’s copious supply of trinkets, I walked outside, then, instead of going back to the street, wandered around to the back of the building. Lucky choice. Suddenly I was in someone’s backyard, a hilly, curvy, strange little lot that could prove to be a nightmare for whatever neighborhood kid was doomed to cut the owner’s grass. It was only a matter of being curious enough to go about thirty feet off the official path….and yet here was the relief I wanted from chronic tour disease. An actual human habitation, complete with Hobbit-like stone landscaping and an extremely cool red scooter to counter-balance the rain-rich greens. Here was a picture I wanted. The “famous” view had shown me nothing. The “unimportant” view had given me everything.
Hey, I regularly get lost anyway. Why not have some fun doing it?
Now, where did my mommy go?
Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography. ——-George Eastman
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHEN I WAS ASSEMBLING THE FIRST COMPILATION OF MY OWN IMAGES, Juxtapositions, I felt a little awkward about captioning the photos in any way, since they were clearly the work of an unaccomplished amateur. In my native Catholic thinking, my default question was, who the hell did I think I was to pontificate on anything, hmm? Notice that, since you are presently reading the musings of the selfsame unaccomplished amateur, I obviously got over past that obstacle, but anyway…
Needing the book to have some kind of general structure or theme, I decided that, although my own wisdom may not be in demand, there were plenty of thoughts from the greats in the photographic field that were worth re-quoting, and which, correctly placed, might even illustrate or amplify what I was trying to say in my own photos. It was a way of channeling great minds and acknowledging that, pro or amateur, we all started off on the same journey with much the same aims.
Looking at the finished book, I noticed that the two most consistent subjects among the finest minds in photography were (1) light; how to harness it, how to serve it, shape it, seek its ability to frame or exalt a subject and (2) the importance of staying flexible, open, and able to embrace the moment.
Both objectives came into clear focus for me last week. A combination of early sunlight, dense foliage and thick morning fog came together in breathtaking patterns in the high canyon rim streets of Santa Barbara, California. Light was busting out wherever it could, coming through branches and boughs in soft shafts that lent an almost supernatural quality to objects even a few feet away, which, when suffused with this satiny mist, were themselves softened, even abstracted. If there was ever a delicate, temporary gift of light, this was it, and I was suddenly in a hurry, lest it run away from me. Any picture I failed to take in the moment was lost within minutes. Overthinking meant going home empty.
There was no time to carefully read the tyrannical histogram, since I knew it would disapprove of the flood of white that would throw some of my shots off the graph. Likewise I couldn’t “cover” myself by bracketing exposures, since there was so much territory to cover, so many images to attempt before the light could mutate into something else. I needed to be shooting, not fiddling.
Better to burn out than to rust out, as Neil Young famously said. One particular arch of overhanging branches called me. It looked like this:
I was, after all these years, back to complete instinct. Snap shot? Certainly. Snap judgement? Hope not.
I didn’t go home empty. And when I got home, a re-check of one of Ansel Adams’ quotes encouraged me:
Sometimes, I do get to places where God’s ready for somebody to click the shutter.
Look for the moment. Listen for God (sometimes he whispers).
And don’t forget to click.
- The 15 Most Popular Photography Tutorials from the 2nd Half of 2012 (digital-photography-school.com)
- What is photography? (bangladesh2u.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AMERICA IS A LOUD PLACE. IF WE DON’T HEAR NOISE WHEREVER WE GO, WE CREATE OUR OWN. It is a country whose every street rings with a cascade of counterpointed voices, transactions, signals, warnings, all of it borne on the madly flapping wings of sound. There are the obvious things, like car horns, screeching tires, soaring planes, thundering rails, somebody else’s music. And then there are the almost invisible hives of interconnecting lives that tamp vibration and confusion into our ears like a trash compactor.
We no longer even notice the noise of life.
In fact, we are vaguely thrown off-balance when it subsides. We need practice in remembering how to get more out of less.
That’s why I love long night exposures. It allows you to survey a scene after the madding crowd has left. Leaving for their dates, their destinies, their homes, they desert the fuller arenas of day and leave it to breathe, and vibrate, at a more intimate rhythm. Colors are muted. Shadows are lengthened. The sky itself becomes a deep velvet envelope instead of a sun-flooded backdrop.
The noise dies, and the quiet momentarily holds the field.
The above image is of Monterey’s Fisherman’s Wharf, one of the key tourist destinations in California, a state with an embarrassment of visual riches. During the day, it is a mash of voices, birdcalls, the deep croak of harbor seals, and the boardwalk come-ons of pitchmen hawking samples of chowder along the wharf’s clustered row of seafood joints. It is a colorful cacophony, but the serenity that descends just after dark on cold or inclement nights is worth seeking out as well.
Setting up a tripod and trying to capture the light patterns on the marina, I was stacking up a bunch of near misses. I had to turn my autofocus off, since dark subjects send it weaving all over the road, desperately searching for something to lock onto. I am also convinced that the vibration reduction should be off during night shots as well, since….and this is counter-intuitive….it creates the look of camera shake when it can’t naturally find it. Ow, my brain hurts.
The biggest problem I had was that, for exposures nearing thirty seconds in length, the gentle roll of the water, nearly imperceptible to the naked eye, was consistently blurring many of the boats in the frame, since I was actually capturing half a minute of their movement at a time. I couldn’t get an evenly sharp frame, and the cold was starting to make me wish I’d packed in a jacket. Then, out of desperation, I rotated the tripod about 180 degrees, and reframed to include the main cluster of shops along the raised dock near the marina. Suddenly, I had a composition, its lines drawing the eye from the front to the back of the shot.
More importantly, I got a record of the wharf’s nerve center in a rare moment of calm. People had taken their noise home, and what was left was allowed to be charming.
And I was there, for both my ear and my eye to “hear” it.
- Vibration Reduction (nikonusa.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF MY FAVORITE SONG TITLES EVER IS BRIAN WILSON’S You Need A Mess Of Help To Stand Alone. At least in my own life, that is probably the truest sentence in the English language. We love to promote the all-too-American myth of the self-made man (or woman), the rugged pioneer who walks into the dark forest and emerges covered in gold and glory. Our folklore is chock full of legendary giants who seem to have single-handedly crafted their own destiny. All by themselves. Don’t need help, thanks. I got this.
It is, of course, baloney. And it may help, in light of the devastation that is still unfolding this week in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, to start emphasizing how crazy it is to talk about our wondrous ability to bend the cosmos to our will. Instead, we might reluctantly admit that we are all part of the same timid bluff against a random universe that regularly delivers knockout punches too strong for any one of us to sustain.
I thought about this last night while reviewing some recent shots of the Monterey Peninsula’s gorgeous visual icon of survival, “The Lone Cypress”. This hardy tree has endured on a barren crag on the coastline between Pacific Grove and Carmel, California since being planted nearly 250 years ago. To call its location “iffy” would be an understatement, given the typical delicate constitution of cypresses, and it has only been able to hold its position against storm and surf by being able to snake its enormous root system down deep into cliff stone, giving it at least a fighting chance.
Adopted nearly a century ago by the Pebble Beach Co., (the golf course people) as its official symbol, the tree has been immortalized on shirts, caps, ads, and promotional materials of every size and type, making the cypress into the botanical equivalent of that “self-made man.” Don’t need nothin’ from nobody. I’m good. I’m gonna do this all by myself.
Only, like the humans it inspires, it doesn’t…really…do that.
The “lone” cypress is bolstered by a brick basin built around its root line. It is tethered and stiffened with steel cables. Most importantly, it is fenced off at some considerable distance from the millions of people who pull off the Seventeen Mile Drive each year to snap it, their multiple accents filling the air with various international versions of, “Gee, ain’t that purty?” Without the fence, the cypress would already be souvenir popsicle sticks hanging from the keychains of every Tom, Dick and Tourist. It comes down to this: the tree is too vital as a symbol to truly be a “lone cypress” any longer.
It, like us, needs a mess of help to stand alone.
Half a country away, this week, we have millions of little lone humans trying to stand alone as well, and, without the rest of us being factored in, regardless of their grit or willpower, some will be blown out to sea. They will crack and snap and wither unless we make their survival as important as…..well, as a tree.
We all have a lot of work to do.
We sink or swim together.
- Hurricane Sandy’s Aftermath How you can help… Millions of… (instagram.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AMIDST THE CARNIVAL ATMOSPHERE OF MONTEREY, CALIFORNIA’S CANNERY ROW, IT IS A DRAB, ORDINARY THING, and, if you are not paying close attention, Ed Rickett’s original biological lab, tucked next to the towering Monterey Bay Aquarium, looks as if it is just waiting for the wrecking ball. In fact, it has escaped that fate several times over, much to the glory of this old industrial district, now scrubbed squeaky-clean to house Starbucks and other national chains within the substructures of what was once the beating heart of the California fishing industry. However, with a little closer look at the former headquarters of Rickett’s Pacific Biological Laboratories, you realize that it carries more history within its humble walls than most of the theme park dreck in the area that attempts to recall that era.
If Cannery Row is a salute to history, the House That Ed Built is history, and has been, luckily, left alone to tell its amazing story.
Edward Flanders Robb Ricketts, who found himself living and working in Pacific Grove, California in the early 1920’s after bouncing around the country as an Army medical corpsman, a dropout zoology student at the University of Chicago, and a travel writer, founded Pacific Biology Laboratories with a friend in 1922. The original lab was in Pacific Grove, a next-door neighborhood to Monterey, and was later relocated to Ocean View Boulevard in the heart of the bustling fisheries and processing plants of Cannery Row. Ricketts took consignment orders from researchers and museums for various life forms from the coastal tides in the region, commissions which made him a modest living and helped finance his own experiments. By 1930, with his reputation fairly established, he met an up-and-coming author from the area named John Steinbeck. The two became lifelong friends.
The PBL lab, with holding tanks around the bank for storing specimens (still viewable today), was nearly destroyed in 1936, when a fire consumed the neighboring Del Mar cannery (now the site of the world-class Monterey Bay aquarium). Steinbeck, stepping in to purchase a half-interest in Ed’s lab, financed its rebuilding (and helped keep a roof over his friend’s head).Saved from the flames was Rickett’s career-defining work, Between Pacific Tides, the manuscript for which had been sent ahead to his publisher before the blaze.
In 1940, following one of many messy breakups with the various women in his life, Ed decided to take a road trip to Mexico and pay for it by researching and writing a new book on marine life. Steinbeck, looking to escape some of the controversy that dogged him following the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, decided to partner with Ricketts on the project.The result, Log From The Sea of Cortez, one of Steinbeck’s only works of non-fiction, became a solid reference work in the field of marine biology.
Writing his novel Cannery Row in 1945, Steinbeck modeled his marine biologist character “Doc” on Ricketts, fictionalizing the PBL as “Western Biological Laboratory” and keeping the spirit of Ed’s place as a gathering (and drinking) point for writers and artists. Following Rickett’s death in 1948 (he was hit by a train carrying Del Monte canned fish through the area!), friends bought the place, keeping it as a kind of clubhouse until 1983, when they sold it to the city of Monterey. The budding Cannery Row Foundation, then just getting underway with a renovation of the area, saw to the restoration of the building, which now is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Specimens Ed gathered from the tidal pools have, for decades, graced collections at Harvard, the American Museum of Natural History, Lund University in Sweden, and dozens of other places the world over. Now the place his work began is itself a specimen.
Cheesy retail and chain restaurants have blotted out a lot of the physical history of Cannery Row, leaving Pacific Biological Laboratories as one of the only authentic visual legacies of one of America’s most storied industrial centers. As such, it’s always worth an extra (and loving) look.
(Here’s a great link from the Museum of Monterey with a wonderful overview of Ed’s life: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=obz6BdAtgIk )
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE MOST EXASPERATING WORDS HEARD ON VACATION: Everyone back on the tour bus.
Damn. Okay, just a second.
Now. We’re going NOW.
I’ve almost got it (maybe a different f-stop….? …..no, I’m just standing in my own light….here, let’s try THIS….
I mean it, we’re leaving without you.
YES, right there, seriously, I’m right behind you. Read a brochure will ya? Geez, NOTHING’S working…….
Sound remotely familiar? There seems to be an inverse proportion of need-to-result that happens when an entire group of tourists is cursing your name and the day you ever set eyes on a camera. The more they tap their collective toe wondering what’s taking so looooong, the farther you are away from anything that will, even for an instant, give you a way to get on that bus with a smile on your face. It’s like the boulder is already bearing down on Indiana Jones, and, even as he runs for his life, he still wonders if there’d be a way to go back for just one more necklace….
Dirty Little Secret: there is no such thing as a photo “stop” when you are part of a traveling group. At best it’s a photo “slow down” unless you literally want to shoot from the hip and hope for the best, which doesn’t work in skeet shooting, horseshoes, brain surgery, ….or photography. Dirty Little Secret Two: you are only marginally welcome at the tomb or cathedral or historically awesome whosis they’re dragging you past, so be grateful we’re letting you in here at all and don’t go all Avedon on us. We know how to handle people like you. We’re taking the next delay out of your bathroom break, wise guy.
A recent trip to the beautiful Memorial Church at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California was that latest of many “back on the bus” scenarios in my life, albeit one with a somewhat happy outcome. Dedicated in 1903 by the surviving widow of the school’s founder, Leland Stanford, the church loads the eye with borrowed styles and decorous detail from a half-dozen different architectural periods, and yet, is majestic rather than noisy, a tranquil oasis within a starkly contemporary and busy campus. And, within seconds of having entered its cavernous space as part of a walking campus tour, it becomes obvious that it will be impossible to do anything, image-wise, other than selecting a small part of the story and working against the clock to make a fast (prayerful) grab. No tripods, no careful contemplation; this will be meatball surgery. And the clock is ticking now.
So we ducked inside. With many of the church’s altars and alcoves shrouded in deep shadow, even at midday, choices were going to be limited. A straight-on flash was going to be an obscene waste of time, unless I wanted to see a blown-out glob of white, three feet in front of me, the effect of lighting a flare in a cave. Likewise, bumping my Nikon’s ISO high enough to read a greater amount of detail was going to be a no-score, since the inner darkness was so stark, away from the skylight of the central basilica dome, that I was inviting enough noise to make the whole thing look like a kid’s smudged watercolor. No, I had to find a way to split the difference; Show some of the light and let the darkness alone.
Instead of bracketing anywhere from 3 to 5 shots in hopes of creating a composite high dynamic range image in post production, I took a narrower bracket of two. I jacked the ISO for both of them just a bit, but not enough to get a lethal grunge gumbo once the two were merged. I shot for the bright highlights and tried to compose so that the light’s falloff would suggest the detail I wouldn’t be able to actually show. At least getting a good angle on the basilica’s arches would allow the mind to sketch out the space that couldn’t be adequately lit on the fly. For insurance, I tried the same trick with several other compositions, but by that time my wife was calling my cel from outside the church, wondering if I had fallen into the baptismal font and drowned.
Yes, right there, I’m coming. Oh, are you all waiting for me? Sorry…..
Perhaps its the worst kind of boorish tourism to forget that, when the doors to the world’s special places are opened to you, you are an invited guest, not some battle-hardened newsie on deadline for an editor. I do really want to be nice. However, I really want to go home with a picture,too, and so I remain a work in progress. Perhaps I can be rehabilitated, and, for the sake of my marriage, I should try.
- The Ultimate Guide to HDR Photography (pixiq.com)