CHOOSE THE INCONVENIENT
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MARKETING BEING WHAT IT IS, CAMERA MANUFACTURERS HAVE LONG TOLD US THEY ARE DOING ONE THING FOR US when they are actually doing something very different. Since the first furry, day-long exposures of the 1800’s gave us a taste of what an entirely new medium could do in the way of chronicling the world, we have been promised that, over succeeding generations of technical development, taking a picture would get easier. In fact, this is a little inaccurate, as what the wizards have mostly done is to make taking a picture faster.
If this sounds like I’m splitting a sub-atomic-sized hair, hear me out. Many of the refinements in camera design over the last century and a half have, of course, improved the sharpness of lenses, the absorbance quotient of recording media, and enhanced design. However, the lion’s share of reboots have been to require fewer steps in framing and shooting, through increasing auto-delegating of many functions to smarter and smarter cameras. But, what we basically gain by this process is speed. It certainly takes much less time to shoot and get an acceptable result as the years roll by. “Well”, you may well ask, “doesn’t that mean the whole process is also easier?”
Tricky question, as it turns out.
In that you can take technically better images with less effort the further we roll along, then yes, it’s “easier”. But the same speed which is part of the “easy” process also means that we spend less time planning a picture, seeing it in our minds and creating it with deliberate action…cause, you know, the camera will do it. This means that it’s also easy to miss things, to fail to visualize the best way to take a shot versus the most expedient way. Slowing down by adding steps into the creation of a photograph means taking back control, so it is, if you will, “harder”, but, with practice of the total process of photographing, the ease, and even the speed all comes back anyway.
I wanted the name of this blog to contain a subtitle about journeying from taking to making images because that is the trek that most photographers eventually set out on. We begin to wonder what it would be like to be more completely in charge of what kind of pictures we wind up with, even if it’s only to take a series of baby steps. It does take more time to take the process into your own hands. But it’s not that hard. Auto-settings save you time, but they may not save your shot. Choosing the inconvenient isn’t ignoring technology. It’s making it work your will with your pictures.
25, 50, T, B
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS A PART OF WILSHIRE BOULEVARD IN LOS ANGELES that I have been using for a photographic hunting ground for over ten years, mostly on foot, and always in search of the numerous Art Deco remnants that remain in the details of doors, window framings, neighborhood theatres and public art. Over the years, I have made what I consider to be a pretty thorough search of the stretch between Fairfax and LaBrea for the pieces of that streamlined era between the world wars, and so it was pretty stunning to realize that I had been repeatedly walking within mere feet of one of the grand icons of that time, busily looking to photograph….well, almost anything else.
A few days ago, I was sizing up a couple framed in the open window of a street cafe when my composition caught just a glimpse of black glass, ribbed by horizontal chrome bands. It took me several ??!?!-type minutes to realize that what I had accidentally included in the frame was the left edge of the most celebrated camera in all of Los Angeles.
Opened in the 1930’s, the Darkroom camera shop stood for decades at 5370 Wilshire as one of the greatest examples of “programmatic architecture”, that cartoony movement that created businesses that incorporated their main product into the very structure of their shops, from the Brown Derby restaurant to the Donut Hole to, well, a camera store with a nine-foot tall recreation of an Argus camera as its front facade.
The surface of the camera is made of the bygone process known as Vitrolite, a shiny, black, opaque mix of vitreous marble and glass, which reflects the myriad colors of Los Angeles street life just as vividly today as it did during the New Deal. The shop’s central window is still the lens of the camera, marked for the shutter speeds of 1/25th and 1/50th of a second, as well as T (time exposure) and B (bulb). A “picture frame” viewfinder and two film transit knobs adorn the top of the camera, which is lodged in a wall of glass block. Over the years, the store’s original sign was removed, and now resides at the Museum of Neon Art in Glendale, California, while the innards of the shop became a series of restaurants with exotic names like Sher-e-Punjab Cuisine and La Boca del Conga Room. Life goes on.
True to the ethos of L.A. fakes, fakes of fakes, and recreations of fake fakes, the faux camera of The Darkroom has been reproduced in Disney theme parks in Paris and Orlando, serving as…what else?….a camera shop for visiting tourists, while the remnants of the original storefront enjoy protection as a Los Angeles historic cultural monument. And, while my finding this little treasure was not quite the discovery of the Holy Grail, it certainly was like finding the production assistant to the stunt double for the stand-in for the Holy Grail.
Hooray for Hollywood.
YOU ARE THE CAMERA
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE MOST ANNOYING COMMERCIAL ON TELEVISION AT PRESENT is the one from Apple reminding you that more people take pictures with the iPhone5 than with any other camera in the world. Now, I understand that The Men Who Would Be Steve at Apple need to assert their dominance in a rapidly accelerating race between smartphone camera brands. It’s just good business, and all that. Granting that, let’s agree that their statement is essentially meaningless for photography.
Apple can claim that their photo gadget is in more hands than anyone else’s? Ho-hum. The Kodak Brownie was able to make the same claim over 100 years ago, and successfully defend it for almost another fifty. We’re number one, sis-boom-bah, and what does that have to do with the kind of pictures that are being taken? The iPhone5 is a technical marvel on many levels, and it contains, among many other toys, a reasonably reliable, limited point-and-shoot-camera. You will always be able to get some kind of image on it under nearly any circumstances.
However, the Apple TV ad, while factually accurate, is artistically false, since it leads one to the spurious conclusion that more iPhone5 pictures means more excellent pictures. And there isn’t a camera, cheap or cherry, that can make that statement. I get just as agitated when trendo camera mags try to imply that if your gear costs thousands, your pictures will look like a million.
We’ve had almost two hundred years to shake off this childish notion. Equipment does not equal excellence. Convenience, speed, affordability, flexibility…cameras can make all these claims. But they do not confer the title of photographer on anyone.
Only you can do that.
And you can do it with a cheap piece of garbage, or a technical wonder, or any equipment stage in between. The idea is all. Everything else is just tinkering.
Here’s another piece of lunatic logic coming from another direction:
The idiotic recent decision of the Chicago Sun-Times to lay off all of its staff photographers, replacing them with freelancers (whom they will train on iPhones!), is not a lousy idea because there aren’t enough low-cost cameras out there to afford them some kind of coverage on their stories. It’s a lousy idea because it’s based on a flawed concept: the belief that photography is a universal skill, and that bystanders with smartphones are the equal of seasoned visual journalists, imbedded in their communities and schooled in its sources. They are not, and can never be.
Sadly,you can bet that editors across the nation are watching to see if the Sun-Times gets away with it. And they just might. Of course the quality of image reporting will take a hit, but since people are leaving the traditional newspaper as if it has leprosy anyway, will the customers know the difference? Look for this horrible move to be duplicated at a newspaper near you, since it’s (a) cheap, (b) easy to explain failure some other way, and (c) oh, yeah did I mention it’s cheap? Ironic sidebar: this is, officially the first time a newspaper has opted for less technology to become more competitive.
Expensive cameras and decent salaries are certainly no guarantee of good news coverage, but a staff loaded with veterans of wars, uprisings, elections, disasters and human interest is. The fact that several of them are Pulitzer Prize winners isn’t exactly a disqualifier, either.
You are the camera. You make the picture, regardless of the technology at hand. Forget that, and you might as well be holding a canned ham.
follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.com
THE GOLDEN AGE OF JUST OKAY
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE ALL SAY IT: THERE ARE NO SHORTCUTS TO SUCCESS.
We all say it. None of us believes it. It’s just not, well, American to throw aside our national myths, and the folk tale of the lucky, quick genius who zooms to the head of the line to fame, bounding in front of all the sloggers and suckers, is intoxicating. One blinding inspiration, we tell ourselves, just one great notion, and we can bypass all that “practicing and patience” stuff, the same virtues we feel honor bound to extol in others. In anyone else but me.
Me, I’m taking the shortcut.
So now is about the time when the photography angle of this rant should kick in, right?
Okay, here goes.
As the automode functions of cameras have grown ever more complex, they have made taking a perfectly acceptable picture effortless. Great for immediate gratification. Not so great for the art of photography. Think about it. It has become so fabulously easy to point and get something that isn’t too bad, that we are bypassing the slower, uglier, but eventually more satisfying process that comes with trial, error, recalculation, and risk. We produce more error-free pictures than ever before, but, to do that, we have to hang our own creativity…..the raw, sloppy process of imagineering our own vision…on the wall. We get fat and lazy. And so do our pictures.
Now that I have successfully defended my title as the great Grinch Buzzkill, trying to rid Whoville of good, clean camera fun, let me just ask one more question. Do we want a large mountain of “okay” pictures, taken, to an ever greater degree, by our cameras, or a smaller, more amazing pile of remarkable pictures borne of our own sweat and struggle? Tricky part: there is no right or wrong answer, just a choice to be made based on your own expectations. Turning off the “green zone” of guaranteed effect modes and really educating ourselves as to what is going into the making of our pictures means turning off a snapshot mentality and opting for the unpredictable.
Hey, I’m not suggesting you go all Matthew Brady and lug around forty pounds of wet plates and a covered wagon full of caustic chemicals just to take a birthday picture of Grandma blowing out her candles. But we can probably aspire to more than just the golden age of okay.
We already know how easy it is to take a picture. Now we need to rediscover how hard it can be, and what miracles can spring from our minds when we get our hands dirty and go down the rockier path.
GOING FOR BROKE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I HAVE READ MORE THAN A FEW ARTICLES OF LATE by professional photographers who confess that they occasionally get stuck in teaching mode, even to the detriment of their own love of shooting. One such author went to far as to recall a recent concert he had attended, camera-less, only to observe, with snotty amusement, the attempts of a young woman to capture action on the far-off stage area. His first reaction was to disdain not only her limited camera but to catalogue all her most heinous errors in composition, exposure, and use of flash, as he mentally predicted how poor her results would be and how she was, essentially, wasting her time.
Then something shifted in his thinking. Instead of being depressed at what hadn’t worked, the woman’s energy revealed that she was actually making the most of the moment; learning, through trial and error, what to do or not do in future. At the end of his essay, he came to realize that “she is a better photographer than me”, since she was taking risks, pushing the limits of her own skills, and developing her craft, one frame at a time, while he had left his own camera at home and was learning nothing. His point hit home with me, since it is a recurring theme of this blog and a key belief among those I respect most in the imaging world.
Shoot. Shoot some more. Dare to fail. Be willing to take more “bad” pictures than the next guy. Get your head out of academic minutia and into the doing of it. Screw up, suck up, but above all, show up.
Ready to play.
Sometimes, just the sheer unwillingness to go home empty-handed provides you with real delight. Last week, I was making the rounds at an area gallery district, the type that does nightly “art walks” as a way of speed-dating potential customers. Many of the best shots I get in these surroundings are near or just after dark, and I always like peeping into the windows of shuttered businesses at night, since some key character of light and mood invariably occurs. For the shot shown above, I fell in love with one gallery that had a kind of sentry posted outside, in the form of an enormous sculpted head. Its aloof expression reminded me of a cross between Easter Island and Blue Man Group, and I really wanted him/her/it to be a part of the shot. However, I had not brought an external flash unit with me, and the sculpture was reading 100% dark in contrast to the interior of the gallery. I was desperate, but not desperate enough to use straight-on pop-up flash, which would have blown the face out completely and destroyed any chance at a moody feel.
Time to improvise.
Having left my bounce card at home as well (I was on foot and truly traveling light), I noticed that the head was underneath a low over-hanging porch roof, something you just must have on the front of an Arizona business in summer. Going totally into what-the-hell mode, I stuck my flat left hand just under the bottom of the pop-up flash and angled it upward about 15 degrees to create a crude bounce off the roof ceiling, allowing the light to soften as it came down upon the top of the head. It took a few tries to avoid creating an uber-white Aurora Borealis effect on the ceiling, and I had to move my feet around to figure out how to get some of the light to cascade down the head’s front and illuminate its features. I also had to bump the ISO up a bit to compensate for the fall-off in the flash at the distance I was standing, but, at the end, I at least got something. Moreover, like the woman at the concert, what I had picked up in technique more than compensated me for the fact that the shot wasn’t strictly an award winner.
I have been playing around with primitive flash bouncing for a while now, and the results run the gamut from god-awful to glad-I-did-that. But it’s all a win no matter how each individual shot plays out, because every image brings me closer to the cumulatively evolved instinct that, someday, will give me great pictures. The baby will eventually be born, but the midwife has to do the front-end work. Nothing I will ever shoot will be captured under perfect conditions, so why drop dead of old age waiting for that to happen? We’re almost to the end of Century Two in this game of writing with light, and all the easy pictures have already been shot, so what’s left will have to be hewed out by hand.
I suggest that we occasionally get our nose out of books (and, duh, blogs too) and start carving.
A BOX FULL OF ALMOSTS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I RECENTLY SPENT AN ANGUISHED AFTERNOON sifting through a box of prints that I shot from about 1998 through 2002, a small part of my amateur work overall, but a particularly frustrating batch of images to revisit. Even given the high number of shots of any kind that one has to take to get a small yield of cherished images, the number of “keepers” from this period is remarkably low. It is a large box of almosts, a warehouse of near misses. Still, I felt that I needed to spend some “quality time” (strange phrase) mentally cataloguing everything that went wrong. I could have used a stiff drink.
One reason that the failure rate on these pictures was so high was because the pictures, all of them stereoscopic, were taken with one of the only cameras available for taking such shots at the time. The Argus 3D was an extremely limited film-based point-and-shoot which had been introduced for the sole purpose of producing cheap prints that could be developed by any vendor with conventional processing. The resulting 4×6 prints from the Argus were not the red-green anaglyph shots requiring the infamous cardboard glasses to decipher their overlaid images. but single prints made up of two side-by-side half-frame images in full color, which could later be inserted into an accompanying split-glass viewer that came with the camera.
The 3D effect was, in fact, quite striking, but the modest camera exacted a price for producing this little miracle. Since stereo works more dramatically at longer focal lengths, only shots made at f/11 or f/16 were offered on the Argus, which also had a fixed shutter speed and could not accommodate films rated higher than ASA 100. As for better 3D cameras, most available in the late ’90’s were dusty old relics from the late ’40’s and ’50’s, meaning that any hobbyist interested in stereo photography had to pretty much accept the built-in limitations of the rigs that were available. As a result, I had only basic control over exposure; light flares would invariably create huge streaks on one of the two angled lenses, creating a headache-y “flicker” in the viewing of the final print; and, worst of all, you had to compose every shot in vertical orientation, regardless of subject, in half the width in which you normally worked.
Worse for the artistic aspect of the project, I seem to have been sucked into the vortex that traps most shooters when learning a new technique; that is, I began to shoot for the effect. It seems to have been irrelevant whether I was shooting a bouquet of roses or a pile of debris, so long as I achieved the “eye-poke” gimmick popping out of the edge of the frame. Object (and objectives) became completely sidelined in my attempts to either “wow” the viewer or overcome the strictures of the camera itself. The whole carton of prints from this period seems to be a chronicle of a man who has lost his way and is too stubborn to ask directions. And of the few technically acceptable images in this cluster of shots, fewer still can boast that the stereoscopic element added anything to the overall impact of the subject matter. Can I have that drink now?
A few years later, I would eventually acquire a 1950’s-vintage Sawyer camera (designed to make amateur View-Master slides), which would allow me to control shutter speed, film type, and depth of field. And a few years after that, my stereo shots started to be pictures first, thrill rides second. Grateful as I was for the improved flexibility, however, the Argus’ cramped frame had, indeed, taught me to be pro-active and deliberate in planning my compositions. Learning to shoot inside that cramped visual phone booth meant that, once better cameras gave me back the full frame, I had developed something of an eye for where to put things. Even in 2D, I had become more aware of how to draw the eye into a flat shot.
Today, as I have consigned 3D to an occasional project or two, the lessons learned at the hands of the cruel and fickle Argus serve me in regular photography, since I remain reluctant to trust even more advanced cameras to make artistic decisions for me. Thus, even in the current smorgasbord of optical options, I feel that, in every shot, I am still the dominant voice in the discussion.
That makes all those “almosts” worth while.
Bartender? Another round.