SOFT AROUND THE MEMORIES
I originally thought a soft, glow-y look would “sell” the vintage look of this truck. Not so sure now…
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I’M A BIG BELIEVER IN SECOND DRAFTS. Part of this comes from my work in commercial copywriting, a field that has only two truths: (A) the customer is always right, and (B) the customer will almost never accept your first effort without changes. Another part of my comfort with re-do’s is my background as an illustrator, a craft that teaches you that your vision seldom comes straight out of the pencil in its fullest or final form. Both professions thrive on negative feedback, and being cool with that can reduce the number of heartaches you’ll face in other imperfect endeavors, such as being a photographer.
Factors like time, travel and opportunity can certainly force shooters to accept their first attempt at an image, simply because getting on a flight or meeting someone for lunch or dodging the rain can mean they have no choice but to accept the one try they’re going to get on a given subject. But even within a narrow time span, digital gear makes it much easier for for us to shoot-and-check-and-shoot-again quickly, resulting in more saves and keepers. But these are all technical considerations, which still ignore the biggest, and most crucial factor in getting the picture right. And that’s us.
Take Two, several days (and several degrees of sharpness) later….
Sometimes we leave a shoot satisfied that we nailed it, only to find, back home, that we were nowhere near the nail and didn’t know how to use the hammer. We didn’t choose the right glass, or the right angle, or, most importantly, the right conception of what would make the image speak. If we’re lucky, we are geographically close enough to the original site that we can go back for a retry. And if we’re really lucky, the time span between first and second draft has shown us what needs to change.
In the two shots of a rusted truck seen here, I was certain, at first, that merely suggesting the wear and tear on the old wreck with a hazy, soft look, would sell a certain nostalgic mood, whereas, once I returned home, my masterpiece just looked like a mess. There’s a red line between soft focus and mush, and I had truly stumbled across it. Fortunately, I was close enough to the truck to drive back and try again with a conventionally sharp image, which I think actually works better overall, at least for me. Fortunately, the time between my first and follow-up attempts was enough to let my approach evolve, and, luckily, I wasn’t blocked from giving it a second go because of time, travel or opportunity. Point is, there is sometimes real value in being forced to wait, to delay the instant gratification that our tech tells us should be our default. Sometimes, we come closer to the mark when we are forced to hurry up and wait.
OPEN ME FIRST
By MICHAEL PERKINS
NEAR THE END OF EVERY YEAR, SINCE ITS INCEPTION, The Normal Eye has cast a fond eye on the romance that persisted for nearly one hundred years between the Eastman Kodak Company and the worldwide market for amateur photography, a market it almost singlehandedly created. These posts have also included a nostalgic nod toward the firm’s famous Christmas advertising, which regularly instructed recipients of a new Kodak camera to “open me first” on the big day. Because before George Eastman could successfully put an easily operated and affordable camera into the world’s hands, he first had to answer the question, “but what will I use it for?”, a question with a very single answer: memory.
Like every savvy marketer, Eastman knew that he not only had to teach people how to use his simple new device: he had to teach them to desire it as well. Memories were the bait. As the world first learned how to say “Kodak” (A nonsense word Eastman devised to stand for nothing but itself in any language), it also had to be sold on its most compelling use, that of a storage medium for humans’ most treasured experiences. Aided in the late nineteenth century by the infant art of mass market advertising, Eastman pitched the camera as the new, essential means of not just recording important events but conferring importance on them. A gathering, a party, a wedding, the family dog at play…these were not really memories at all, unless and until a Kodak anointed them as such. It was a new way for the world to regard its experiences, not as valuable by themselves alone, but valuable because a Kodak, one’s own Kodak, had captured them. Today, we still react to life with the same urgent need. This will make a great picture. I have to get a picture of this.
Advertise photography without using a photograph? Hey, welcome to 1900, folks.
And what could be a greater potential harvesting ground for these memories than Christmas Day? Almost from Kodak’s beginnings, Eastman mounted annual ad campaigns that emphasized how precious, how fleeting were the moments of joy and discovery that accompanied the opening of presents, certainly when those presents included a new Kodak camera. As seen in the above image, this sales pitch started even before most major newspapers could even reliably reproduce a photograph of any kind in their pages, leading to ads that touted the benefits of photography with only drawings or paintings of the product being used! Talk about the power of suggestion…..
The marketing of any product, from the automobile to the iPhone, starts with the engineering of desire, of convincing consumers they need a thing and then selling it to them. With luck, the buyer sees that they do, indeed, “need” that thing (even if they never knew it before), and come to think of it as indispensable. And so it was with the ability to freeze time in a box. As in Eastman’s time, we still see the value of those boxes, even as their functions have shifted and evolved. We still want the magic. And the trick is still enchanting. Every. Single. Time.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN THE CHRISTMASES OF MY CHILDHOOD, homes were less frequently garnished on their outsides, with most of the houses in my neighborhood sporting little more in the yard than a few slim strings of lights or the occasional lawn Santa. Our current emphasis on LED-coated exteriors and rolling light shows lay far in the future in the Eisenhower era, leaving the family tree to perform most of the heavy lifting as the visual emblem for the holidays. Our own system was simple: string the lights and lay on the ornaments in a fully lit room, with the tree positioned before the house’s biggest window: then, after everyone had scampered out onto the front yard, deputize Dad to douse the house lights and plug in the tree, launching its social debut to street view. That collective moment of “aww” was, for me, worth the entire holiday.
In photographing Christmas as a much older child, while I do admire all the pyrotechnics required to give every house the full Clark Griswold treatment, I tend to make pictures of trees as seen through front windows, framed by shadows, devoid of drama, as quiet as a silent movie, the one centerpiece delivering its visual message in a muted, almost personal tone. It’s the time of year when sentiment and habit are so closely intertwined as to be indistinguishable from each other, and thus there are so many things that we always do because we’ve always done them. One thing I seek in a picture is permanence, the impression that what’s right in that one image is in some way right for all time. That means that, at Christmas, I look for sights that could have sprung from any or all Christmases over the decades. It’s remarkably comforting in a world that has become so comfortable with tumult and noise to deliberately try to show stillness.
This particular window, in central Los Angeles, required a bit of patience. Between trying to nail the correct blend of twilight and dark in the surrounding sky and tracking the occupant’s nightly decision to either draw or open the drapes, I walked by the place for several consecutive nights before I saw what I was after. Upon clicking the shutter, I may or may not have completely reverted to boyhood and uttered an “Awww” aloud, but I certainly said it in my heart, as I tried to in this picture.
Be safe. Be well. Be here next year.
THE ENGINEERING OF DESIRE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EACH HOLIDAY SEASON OF EVERY YEAR since The Normal Eye was launched over a decade ago, we have had some nostalgic fun recalling the glory days of the Eastman Kodak Company, the people who first took photography from a science nerd’s hobby to a global pastime, and the unique way that they influenced Christmastime gifting habits for over a century. Through an incredible, sustained campaign of persuasion that equated good times with the photographic chronicling of every major human event, Kodak cemented its relationship with its customers in a way that gave all other advertisers a key lesson in what one marketer would dub “the engineering of desire”.
Kodak was a film company that chiefly succeeded by appearing to be a camera company. In effect, the constant refinements in their cameras were a mere investment in the film side of the firm. Better, easier devices removed any resistance to taking more pictures, and thus purchasing more film. And, at Christmas, the company made the most of its relationship with its customers, using the occasion to create more users and make existing users consume at an ever-higher rate. There were several names for this ingenious marriage of form and function, and one of its most illustrious monickers was “Instamatic”.
The introduction of the Instamatic camera line in the early 1960’s was as big a leap forward for Kodak as the debut of its first Everyman camera, the Brownie, had been in the 1890’s. Like the Brownie, the Instamatic was a major advance in ease of operation. Designers Dean Peterson and Alexander Gow’s new cartridge-loaded film(which was simply dropped intact into the camera body) eliminated users’ long-time aversion to threading, and potentially ruining, traditional roll film. Its slim design made it easier to stash and carry. Its eventual use of self-contained flash “cubes” got rid of the bulk and mess of extended add-on flash guns and red-hot bulbs. And its fixed-focus lens and single shutter speed made it the world’s first true point-and-shoot.
The only challenge that remained lay in selling the new design to the public, and when the Instamatic was introduced in 1963 at a price point of $16 dollars and made the star of its Christmas campaigns for the year, the deal was sealed, to the tune of over fifty million Instamatics sold in the camera’s first seven years of production. Positioned as a cute newborn chick “hatched” just in time for your “morning-of” memories (as seen in the above ad), the Instamatic made as major an impact on the amateur market as have the cellphone cameras of today, in that they took more uncertainty out of the process of making pictures by ensuring better and more consistent results. Which is still the way you sell a ton of cameras, as you allow more and more people to get on with getting their shot on. Or, to re-frame the old “fishing” adage: Take a man’s picture and he has one picture for one day. Teach him to make his own pictures, and you’ll keep selling him everything else associated with that process forever.
A WONDROUS MESS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
Consulting the rules of composition before taking a photograph is like consulting the laws of gravity before going for a walk.
PHOTOGRAPHERS LOVE TO COMPILE LISTS OF LAWS that must be obeyed to ensure the capture of great images. Bookshelves are jammed to fracturing with the collected works of wizards large and small who contend that all of this art stuff is really about craft, or adherence to techniques that are the equivalent of Einstein’s law. And, of course, with every fresh generation, a new slew of shooters come sneering along to deride this starched and stuffy discipline. All that matters, these young turks snigger, is my grand vision.
Let me again re-state the obvious, which is that both viewpoints are correct and/or totally wrong. And since Mr. Weston has introduced the subject of composition, let us consider the special task of seasonal photos, specifically, arrangements of yuletide objects. The classic rule on still-life shots is that less is more, that it’s better to perfectly light and expose three pieces of fruit than whole baskets of the stuff. Meanwhile the festive, instinctual artist concedes that many holiday scenes are mad with detail and crammed with more, more, more…..and that’s okay.
The unique thing about Christmas decor is that in many cases, you not creating the compositions, but merely reacting to someone else’s creations…in nativity scenes, churches, and especially in retail environments. Obviously your local department store doesn’t adhere to the admonition “keep it simple”; quite the opposite. Seasonal trim in most stores is served up not by the spoonful but by the truckload. Anything less than overkill seems skimpy to many yuletide decorators, and so, if you favor basic subject matter, you’re either going to have to mount your own arrangements or selectively zoom and crop the more congested scenes. If, however, you already subscribe to the idea that more is better, then life gets easy fast.
Holidays come layered in much that is intensely personal, and that makes clean compositional judgements about “how much” or “how little” tricky at best. Just get the feelings right and let your regular rules relax into guidelines.
THE OOOOH FACTOR
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU LONG TO HEAR IT. The audible gasp, the sustained, breathless, collective “oooooh” from the crowd when the house lights are doused and the holiday tree glows into life in the darkened room. It’s a sonic sample of the extra dimension of emotional engagement that occurs at this time of year, imbuing your photographs with additional firepower. Call it wonder, magic, enchantment, or what you will, but it is there, in greater supply during the season, a tangible thing amidst the bustle and the endless lists of errands.
Children are the best barometers of this heightened awareness, since so many of their experiences are first-time experiences. Regular routines become magically unpredictable. Ordinary things take on the golden warmth of tradition. People that are normally on looser orbits circle closer to them for a time. Time expands and contracts. And their faces register it all, from confusion to anticipation. Reading the wonder in a child’s face is truly easy pickings at times like this, but I’m a big believer in catching them while they live their lives, not queueing up for rehearsed smiles or official sittings. Those are important, but the real Santa stuff, the magic fairy dust, gets into the camera when you eavesdrop on something organic.
The wonderful thing is, it’s not big feat to keep a kid distracted during the holidays. They are in a constant state of sensory overload, and so extremely unaware of you that all you have to do is keep it that way. Get reactions to, not re-creations of, their joy. Be a witness, not a choreographer. Stealth is your best friend for seasonal images, and it’s never easier to pull off, so bask a bit in your anonymity.
And, to further feed your own wonder, stay aware of how fleeting all of it is. You are chronicling things that can never, in this exact way, be again. That is, you’re at the very core of why you took photography up in the first place, a way to reboot your enthusiasm.
And it that’s not magic, then I will never know what is…..
THE PARTY’S OVER
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY IS THE SCIENCE OF SECONDS. The seconds when the light plays past you. The seconds when the joy explodes. The seconds when maybe the building explodes, or the plane crashes. The micro moments of emotion’s arrivals and departures. Here it comes. There it goes. Click.
We are very good with the comings….the beginnings of babies, the opening of a rose, the blooming of a surprised smile. However, as chroniclers of effect, we often forget to also document the goings of life. The ends of things. The moment when the party’s over.
Christmas is a time of supreme comings and goings, and we have more than a month of ramp-up time each year during which we snap away at what is on the way. The gatherings and the gifts. The approaching joy. But a holiday this big leaves echoes and vacuums when it goes away, and those goings are photo opportunities as well.
This year, on 12/26, the predictably melancholy “morning after” found me driving around completely without pattern or design, looking for something of the magic day that had departed. I spun past the abandoned ruin of one of those temporary Christmas tree lots that sprout in the crevices of every city like gypsy camps for about three weeks out of the year, and something about all its emptiness said picture to me, so I got out and started bargaining with a makeshift cyclone fence for a view of the poles, lights and unloved fir branches left behind.
The earliness of the hour meant that the light was a little warmer and kinder than would be the case later on in the bleached-out white of an Arizona midday, so the scene was about as nice as it was going to get. But what I was really after was the energy that goes out of things the day the circus drives out of town. The holidays are ripe with that feeling of loss, and, to me, it’s at least as interesting as recording the joy. Without a little tragedy you don’t appreciate triumph, and all that. Christmas trees are just such an obvious measure of that flow: one day you’re selling magic by the foot, the next day you’re packing up trash and trailer and making your exit.
Photographs come when they come, and, unlike us, they aren’t particular about what their message is. They just present chances to see.
Precious chances, as it turns out.
THE ANGEL’S IN THE DETAILS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I IMAGINE THAT, IF SOMEONE UN-INVENTED CHRISTMAS, the entire history of personal photography might be compressed into about twenty minutes. I mean, be honest, was there ever a single event or phase of human experience for which more images were clicked than the holiday season? Just given the sheer number of cameras that were found under the tree and given their first test drive right then and there, you’d have one of the greatest troves of personal, and therefore irreplaceable, images in modern history.
Holidays are driven by very specific cues, emotional and historical.
We always get this kind of tree and we always put it in this corner of the room. I always look for the ornament that is special to me, and I always hang it right here. Oh, this is my favorite song. What do you mean, we’re not having hot chocolate? We can’t open presents until tomorrow morning. We just don’t, that’s all.
If, during the rest of our year, “the devil’s in the details”, that is, that any little thing can make life go wrong, then, during the holidays, the angel’s in the details, since nearly everything conspires to make existence not only bearable, but something to be longed for, mulled over, treasured in age. Photographs seem like the most natural of angelic details, since they lend a gauzy permanence to memory, freezing the surprised gasp, the tearful reunion, the shared giggle.
As the years roll on, little is recalled about who got what sweater or who stood longest in line at GreedMart trying to get the last Teddy Ruxpin in North America. Instead, there are those images…in boxes, in albums, on hard drives, on phones. Oh, look. He was so young. She looks so happy. That was the year Billy came home as a surprise. That was the last year we had Grandma with us. Look, look, look.
So remember, always….the greatest gifts you’ll ever receive aren’t under the tree.
KEEPING SPIRITS BRIGHT
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT IS A SEASON OF LIGHT AND COLOR, perhaps one of the key times of the year for all things illuminated, burning, blazing and glowing. It is a time when opportunities for vivid and brilliant images explode from every corner.
And one way to unleash all that light is to manage darkness.
One example: your family Christmas tree involves more delicate detail, tradition and miniature charm than any other part of your home’s holiday decor, but it often loses impact in many snapshots, either blown out in on-camera flash or underlit with a few colored twinkles surrounded by a blob of piny silhouette.
How about a third approach: go ahead and turn off all the lights in the room except those on the tree, but set up a tripod and take a short time exposure.
It’s amazing how easy this simple trick will enhance the overall atmosphere. With the slightly slow exposure, the powerful tree LEDs have more than enough oomph to add a soft glow to the entire room, while acting as a multitude of tiny fill lights for the shaded crannies within the texture of the tree. Ornaments will be softly and partially lit, highlighting their design details and giving them a slightly dimensional pop.
In fact, the LED’s emit such strong light that you only want to make the exposure slow enough to register them. The above image was taken at 1/16 of a second, no longer, so the lights don’t have time to “burn in” and smear. And yes, some of you highly developed humanoids can hand-hold a shot steadily at that exposure, so see what works for you. You could also, of course, shoot wide open to f/1.8 if you have a prime lens, making things even easier, but you might run into focus problems at close range. You could also just jack up your ISO and shoot at a more manageable shutter speed, but in a darkened room you’re trading off for a lot of noise in the areas beyond the tree. Dealer’s choice.
Lights are a big part of the holidays, and mastery of light is the magic that delivers the mystery. Have fun.
I’M DREAMING OF A ‘CHROME CHRISTMAS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF YOU HAVE BEEN ON THE PLANET FOR MORE THAN FIFTY CHRISTMASES, your holiday memories (at least those frozen in family snapshots) will include more than a few black and white images. Some families made the switch to color photography earlier than others, but, at least until the mid-1960’s, for millions of us, more than a few “our best tree ever” photos were shot in monochrome. A little web research or family album-browsing can illustrate just how well beloved memories were captured by millions of us, long before Kodachrome became the visual currency of family folklore.
It’s interesting to note that, with the universal availability of not only simple cameras but post-processing apps, there’s been a sort of retro-fed love of b&w that’s refreshing, given that we are, once again, admitting that some subjects can be wonderfully rendered in a series of greyscale tones. Certainly the general marketing and depiction of the season is a color-drenched one, but many new photographers are re-discovering the art of doing more with less, or, more properly, seeing black and white as an interpretation of reality rather, as in the case of color, as a recording of it.
Observing the season out in the American West, thousands of miles from loved ones, I find that my holiday shots are increasingly journalistic or “street” in nature, since I am viewing and interpreting other people’s Christmases. The contours and designs of retail become a vibrant source of stories for me, and black and white allows me to shoot at an emotionally safe distance while calling special attention to texture and detail.
Depending on whether you’re showing the splendor of food and presents or evoking some Dickens-era urban grit, some subjects will come up flat or drab in black and white, given our very specific memory cues as to what Christmas should “look like”, so getting the desired result may be elusive. But, of course, if photography was easy, everyone would do it.
Oh, wait, everybody does do it.
Thing is, you always add another voice to the creative conversation. That’s the best part of both photography and the holidays.
No way is best but your way.
- Photography 101: Shooting in Black and White (dailypost.wordpress.com)
“But you were always a good man of business”, faltered Scrooge.
“Business!”, cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business! Charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of MY BUSINESS!!”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN FORWARD COMBAT AREAS, CHRISTMAS IS NOT SO MUCH A CELEBRATION as a cessation of hostilities. We have all seen those poignant scenes from war movies in which, at the tolling of the midnight bell on the 25th, combatants from both sides, some within mere feet of each other, lay down their arms, share a smoke, a snort of whiskey, even a song, before resuming the slaughter. Such cinematic schmaltz is both touching….and infuriating.
Touching…..because it’s a comfort to think that our essential humanity cannot be totally submerged in madness. Infuriating……because we never learn how to extend, export, and explore such episodes of humanity. We make our way through the world as if we had no choice but to heed whatever animal urges see fit to boil up in us in the moment.
We act as if we are helpless to choose anything but our own destruction.
That self-imposed fake destiny was never in greater evidence than in the recently completed year. Use any yardstick you want. Animosity, brutality, stupidity, selfishness, heedlessness…we bounced and ricocheted off each one like the proverbial bull in a shop. But instead of merely smashing china, we smashed lives…or, more importantly, cut them short, as if this were just the way of the world and we were merely unanchored flotsam on a churning sea of fate.
The pure punishment of the events of 2012 has recently sent me looking through my images for this year in search of peace. Maybe not peace in its perfection, but something to look upon which betokens calm, silence, a cessation of hostilities. I am not frequently at my family home for Christmas, and those visits that I do make during the winter months may or may not have the classic visual trappings one looks for during the season. The above picture was actually taken in February, with a scant amount of snow on the ground, the bare trees from my father’s back lot providing a stark landscape, and his next nearest neighbor’s house beckoning as the next best hope of refuge. Or so it looks to me, looking back. It’s a lonely little scene, but over the past few weeks, the quiet of it has meant everything to me. And not because I’m the one who shot it.
Maybe making it to that next warm, safe house is all any of us longs for. Maybe it represents how far off the mark we have wandered during the year. Maybe it’s like Robert Frost’s definition of “home” as the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in. In any event, I hope you all can find a picture somewhere that, for you, marks a place to reflect, catch your breath, and, just for a moment, stop shooting at that other guy just a few feet away.
I also intend to pray for something a little more lasting.
And while it would take an old-fashioned Christmas Miracle to get to that place……well, what else are prayers for?
- Heavenly Peace – At Least In Canada (maxredline.typepad.com)
TURNING UP THE MAGIC
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CHRISTMAS IS SO BIG THAT IT CAN AFFORD TO GO SMALL. Photographers can, of course, tackle the huge themes….cavernous rooms bursting with gifts, sprawling trees crowning massive plazas, the lengthy curve and contour of snowy lanes and rustic rinks…..there are plenty of vistas of, well, plenty. However, to get to human scale on this most superhuman of experiences, you have to shrink the frame, tighten the focus to intimate details, go to the tiny core of emotion and memory. Those things are measured in inches, in the minute wonder of things that bear the names little, miniature, precious.
And, as in every other aspect of holiday photography, light, and its successful manipulation, seals the deal.
In recent years I have turned away from big rooms and large tableaux for the small stories that emanate from close examination of corners and crannies. The special ornament. The tiny keepsake. The magic that reveals itself only after we slow down, quiet down, and zoom in. In effect, you have to get close enough to read the “Rosebud” on the sled.
Through one life path and another, I have not been “home” (that is, my parents’ home) for Christmas for many years now. This year, I broke the pattern to visit early in December, where the airfare was affordable, the overall scene was less hectic and the look of the season was visually quiet, if no less personal. It became, for me, a way to ease back into the holidays as an experience that I’d laid aside for a long time.
A measured re-entry.
I wanted to eschew big rooms and super-sized layouts to concentrate on things within things, parts of the scene. That also went for the light, which needed to be simpler, smaller, just enough. Two things in my parents’ house drew me in: several select branches of the family tree, and one small part of my mother’s amazing collection of nutcrackers. In both cases, I had tried to shoot in both daylight and general night-time room light. In both cases, I needed some elusive tool for enhancement of detail, some way to highlight texture on a very muted scale.
Call it turning up the magic.
As it turned out, both subjects were flanked by white mini-lights, the tree lit exclusively by white, the nutcrackers assembled on a bed of green with the lights woven into the greenery. The short-throw range of these lights was going to be all I would need, or want. All that was required was to set up on a tripod so that exposures of anywhere from one to three seconds would coax color bounces and delicate shadows out of the darkness, as well as keeping ISO to an absolute minimum. In the case of the nutcrackers, the varnished finish of many of the figures, in this process, would shine like porcelain. For many of the tree ornaments, the looks of wood, foil, glitter, and fabric were magnified by the close-at-hand, mild light. Controlled exposures also kept the lights from “burning in” and washing out as well, so there was really no down side to using them exclusively.
Best thing? Whole project, from start to finish, took mere minutes, with dozens of shots and editing choices yielded before anyone else in the room could miss me.
And, since I’d been away for a while, that, along with starting a new tradition of seeing, was a good thing.
- How to Take a Picture of Your Christmas Tree (purdueavenue.com)