By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE SEE-SAW ACT THAT PHOTOGRAPHY PERFORMS between camouflage and revelation is one of the more tantalizing dynamics of the art. That we can both expose and conceal within a single image is what, in my opinion, actually makes a photograph an artistic expression. Originally conceived merely as a device for recording information, mirroring reality if you will, the camera is actually as coy as a strip-tease artist. You must read pictures for both positive and negative information.
Portraits are ways of expressing how we individually see a person, as well as an invitation to others to either identify or distance themselves from that very individual impression. It is not, by its very nature, an historic document. I was reminded of this recently when doing some background research on my favorite painting, Madame X, John Singer Sargent’s portrait of an American ex-patriot who had burst upon the social scene in nineteenth-century Paris. Not only are his preliminary studies of the woman remarkably distinct from each other, but further study shows that portraits of the same woman done by other artists of the period may as well be of five different people. All are accurate. All are true.
And so with photos. Gone is the pressure of making one official image of a person to mark their time on the planet, a feature of many early portraits where subjects might be photographed but a single time during their entire life. Now we have several hundred cracks at our favorite people over decades, none of them truly definitive or even typical. In my own case, I have photographed the woman shown here, a master teacher on my weekly birdwatching walks, literally dozens of times over the past decade, and each of the images revealing something vastly different about her character, making her now gentle, now stern, now aged, and now utterly ageless. I keep coming back to her because her eighty-plus years serve her like a kaleidoscope, serving up infinite refractions of her upon each new sitting. What I reveal in one frame I will conceal in the next. In one shot I am celebrating her longevity, while in yet another I am lamenting her fragility.
Even without much trying, you are going to take lots of pictures of the people you love over time. Make those multiple “takes” work for you, talk to you, keep you curious. You will learn that the camera costumes even as it reveals, and that those subtle variations, like variations in autumnal shades, will all be alien from each other, and will all, to one degree or another, ring true.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
HERE, AT BREAKNECK SPEED AND WITHOUT SHAME, COMES A SUPREME PHOTOGRAPHY CLICHE.
“You always miss 100% of the shots that you don’t take.” (Scattered, half-sincere applause. Several moans.)
Okay, maybe they were talking about basketball. Or people taking pictures of basketball. Beyond the tired corniness of the sentence, however, lingers an unassailable fact: if you don’t try to get the picture, you won’t get the picture. Every time you pre-censor yourself by saying, “ah, the light’s not right” or “I didn’t bring the right lens” or “I don’t push shutter buttons when the moon is in Virgo”, you’ve definitely shielded yourself from failure. But you’ve also guaranteed that you’ll come home empty-handed. In effect, in the interest of getting something wrong, you’ve ensured that you may nail something marvelous, regardless of your misgivings.
All of which seems antithetical to making any photograph, let along a good one. True, your chances of success in less-than-ideal conditions are diminished, but you’ve probably already had the experience of harvesting a miracle in spite of…..in spite of the garbage light, in spite of the hurried conditions, in spite of the fact that you needed to hurry-erase several frames off your memory card to even try the shot…in spite of….
I was reminded of all this yesterday when I almost didn’t try for this fat little bullfrog. He was about twenty-five feet away, and I had come out with a 56mm prime lens with no zoom. There was also the risk of spooking him and getting a great image, of, well, pond water. But I was on a full-frame sensor body, shooting at the highest resolution and the biggest file possible, so I thought, why not? I can crop the thing later and there will probably still be enough resolution to save the day. The entire decision took about fifteen seconds, and, as you can see, even though the pic is not going to get me on National Geographic’s Christmas card list, it was worth the trip. The entire point here is to get you out of the habit of talking yourself out of trying a shot before the fact. After all, there’s plenty of time to hate on a picture after you’ve taken it (which is more fun for others, as well) and, in terms of a winning percentage, anything past zero is a win.
How do you like your pizza photo? With a guy…?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHING PEOPLE IN THEIR NATIVE SETTINGS, that is, making pictures of what they do in order to explain what they do, is the essence of street work. We are fascinated by people being “caught in the act of being themselves” (as the intro to the old show Candid Camera used to state), and we get a ton of context on all the stuff we’re seeing in a frame when we see where human activity fits into it all. I get it.
And yet, I still find myself evaluating the impact of an image with a sort of “trace or no trace” choice. Do the people in the picture explain it, actually anchor it, or am I (we) merely in the habit of sticking them there, like punctuation in a sentence? Can we comprehend what the photograph is about, and what part humans had in its meaning, without the actual presence of said people?
The pair of shots you see here, taken seconds apart in a funky urban pizzeria, are the latest pair to present me with this conundrum. Certainly the cook in the top image conveys scale to the surrounding oven and fixtures. For example, with him in the frame, it’s easy to convey the size of the interior space, i.e., it’s pretty compact. He also “looks the part” in that he looks like he fits in a pizzeria, that is, he’s well cast in his part.
But look at the second image, which was taken after he ducked briefly into the kitchen. You get many of the same cues and clues. You get atmosphere from the distressed brick in both the walls and the oven. Indeed, without the chef to distract you, you might actually linger longer over the details in the oven itself, which unmistakably screams pizza. I suppose the reason I dither with this dilemma is the fact that I’ve often been forced to suggest the presence of people in various still lifes and architectural compositions, either because they’re not part of, say, a museum exhibit, or because they are dead or absent for more mortal reasons, leaving me with only their leavings from which to tell a story.
Even if we (or you) can’t come up with a consistent rule, the point is that not all people make a photographic story richer. Sometimes they are mere pieces of furniture, props if you will, added for balance. You alone must decide whether they’re a necessity or mere window dressing.
Listening For The Lark, 2022. A monochrome conversion from a color master shot.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOME OF OUR PHOTOGRAPHS CERTIFY THEMSELVES TO US AS “RIGHT” OR “WRONG” over time, not registering instantly as either keepers or pitchers, but slowly making the case for their final disposition. These are the truly tricky shots, the ones whose success or failure is not readily apparent upon first, or second, or even fifth glance. Such images go in and out of the workflow bin again and again, sometimes over years, while we decide whether we recognize them as our own offspring.
Sometimes it means we partially embrace a shot, loving it in spite of a slight technical miscalculation or a composition that’s slightly off. Other times, we trust/mistrust our original intention, which is French for “what was I thinking?”. In recent years, as I’ve returned to the tonal range of my first days as a shooter, I often stick pictures in the “still under consideration” pile over the choice of whether to re-render them in monochrome. I often think of color and b/w as two different arrangements of the same theme, or maybe a song played in one of two very distinct keys.
The color original.
Since mono was the default of my earliest days, I naturally learned to shoot in it first. Once color became the go-to for most photography, I deferred to that. I don’t intentionally shoot my master shots in mono because it means pre-empting a choice that I might want to exercise later. You can easily go from color to no color, but,…. well you know the argument, and so that seems to mark me as a conversion person. Black and white is a choice, but not if you had no other choice in the first place, right? Mono has its own tonal vocabulary and creates a separate mood or priority of light than color. And for that reason, as well as the need to weigh and re-weigh my options pretty much forever, many of the pictures I can’t decide to love or hate hinge on the strengths and weaknesses or the two tonal “keys”.
Is color more bold, or can a more dramatic statement be made in its absence? Does monochrome tantalize, tease the appetite for more information, stimulate the imagination, and does it do so more effectively than a garish explosion of hue? Which of the two modes is, for me, in this particular instance, more “authentic”? And is that what I even want in the first place?
There are lots of images which cry out to be completed, to have their case file marked “closed” with a final determination of their value. But if art is about forcing flexibility where some would favor rigidity, then it’s probably a desirable thing for us not to rush to judgement on some of our pictures. Maybe they came into the world fully formed, and maybe not. But maybe, after all, it’s us who need to become more complete, in a variety of ways.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PROFESSIONAL PHOTOJOURNALISTS KNOW THAT ARRIVAL TIME IS CRUCIAL. Show up before the story gets underway and you shoot empty podiums and uncut ribbons. Show up after the event, and you’re watching the janitor sweep away its debris. Making a picture of a set thing in its best moment is largely luck, however, and just because you are either too early or too late for the action doesn’t mean that you’re robbed of a story.
Anticipation, at least the right kind, can be as dramatic as the promised happening. In some cases, even more so, since many “big moments” can fail to live up to the hype. Just ask the International Olympic Committee. Likewise the aftermath of a key event can produce its own letdown or cool-off energy that may also be grist for the camera. What I’m suggesting is that before’s and after’s are not necessarily the “wrong” times to comment on something. Both the prelude and the postlude have their own visual grammar, if you develop an eye for reading what they have to say.
Party Of Three, 2022
On the morning that I caught this scene, I had to leave the park I was in well ahead of the guest of honor’s arrival. Thus the only picture I could make of his birthday party was the way it might look when he first clapped eyes on it. Everything about this scene appealed to me, although I had to look back at the picture to appreciate just what I was appreciating (stay with me for a moment). For starters, I just loved the simple, low-tech homemadeness of the thing. The way the various tree-anchored balloons bounced and bobbled in the light breeze. The way the midday sun caught and amplified all the colors and helped them pop. The thrill of imagining a three-year-old boy taking in the scene of all those flying and floating dinosaurs, as well as the raptors on the tablecloth. It looked like a blueprint for success. I had to wait on the wind to balance the composition by flying the balloons into the best position, but other than that, it was a point-and-shoot without a lot of over-thinking.
The only thing missing for me, later, lie in wishing that I could have sneaked back for a look at the crumbled cake, the popped balloons, the discarded gift wrap. A kind of bookend to the day. But even though I hadn’t witnessed either the actual party or its denouement, I didn’t really need to: I had already witnessed pure joy.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I AM CERTAINLY GUILTY, in these pages, of frequently harping on the need for economy in the composition of a photograph, of working purposely to say the most with the least. I’ve rhapsodized about how clutter and crowding can ruin a picture’s ability to communicate cleanly, and how best to streamline one’s vision with repeated layers of editing and cropping, in an attempt to pare away any extraneous junk that gets between a photo and its audience’s eye.
And in many cases, I still feel I am right.
Except when I am completely wrong.
Clutter & Buck, 2022
Occasionally, we’re faced with trying to capture a subject whose very complexity or density is not in the way of the point, but is the point. Intricate gears in a machine. A teeming crowd filling the frame with conflicting destinations and motivations. Or here, a rustic chicken coop that is all about noise, crowding, clutter, randomness. Certainly it would be possible to frame a picture of this subject with minimal elements, limited textures, going “clean” in a ruthless way. But that would result in a completely different image than what I wanted from this photo.
And so this is a kind of mess, this picture, and yet I am so sure that it’s the only true thing I could have made under the circumstances. In musical terms, composition is a deliberate arrangement of elements, and can be either richly layered or spare. The composer, wielding either a pen or a camera, must decide how best to get the music out. Photography proceeds from a given set of rules, but in breaking those rules, we decide whether they should have been written in the first place. I still love spare subject matter for many of my pictures, but sometimes, just sometimes, a song is best played fortissimo, with all the instruments blaring at once.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
OVER THE YEARS, I HAVE FILLED PAGES OF THIS LITTLE HOMETOWN NEWSPAPER with confessional accounts of my weaknesses in many areas of photography, with special emphasis on my underdeveloped skill with landscapes. To say that I need improvement in this area is, on the Captain Obvious scale, somewhat akin to breaking the hot bulletin that Batman has anger issues. And yet we soldier on.
It’s hard to look out upon a vast mountain vista or a yawning canyon and think in terms of simplicity. At least in my own case. I initially came to the visual arts as an illustrator, influenced by artists that I can only call “completists” in that they drew intricate compilations of every leaf, stone and speck within a scene, a technique that my infant brain referred to as “realistic”. It follows, then, that as I segued into photography, my instinct was to go for that illustrative look, with tons of detail, and a broad panoramic sweep. It drew me to grand subjects and wide, wide lenses.
Occasionally, this has served me well, but more often it gave me a severe case of Too Much Picture, frames that were so drowned in detail and visual information that I was challenged to tell succinct, clear stories in landscape form. There was always plenty to look at, but I wasn’t developing a real instinct for what a viewer should look at first, or should regard as the central narrative focus of a picture. My sense of composition still fell too often into the “get everything in there” side of the fence. I produced well-focused pictures of scenes that were always okay, but seldom compelling.
These days, I fight to make the simplest framings that I can. I struggle to present one main idea and make everything else in the image subservient to that idea, or at least to get out of its way. The frame seen here is done quite differently than I might have made it as a younger man. The forked cactus at the center has been designated as the main messenger of the picture, with everything else reduced in definition or importance. In the past, I might have tried to expose the picture uniformly, with every spine, frond and branch in the same brightness or color intensity. Now I am far more likely, in this case, to expose just for the central open space and leave the surrounding halo frame in shadow….the idea being to let some things have louder voices in a picture than other things. I have done the same thing with selective focus, using blur or softer resolution to force attention onto the primary feature in the picture.
I still have a lot of work to do, but at least I have moved from my original habit of giving all elements in a landscape equal status to trying to, if you like, direct eye traffic to greater effect. It’s a struggle for balance between the picture’s M&Ms, or the major and minor messengers for that particular photograph. It’s not an exact science. Hell, it’s not even an exact art. But it’s the only way I can shoot landscapes if I want to escape the dreaded gravitational pull of Planet Postcard.
This master shot begins as a merely okay bird picture with a whole lot of empty real estate in it. Not bad, but…..
By MICHAEL PERKINS
LEGENDARY DIRECTOR FRANK CAPRA LIKED TO TELL THE STORY of how he pulled one of his classic films back from the brink of catastrophe, by heading back to his office after a disastrous preview and literally throwing the first two reels into the studio incinerator. The shortened movie, Lost Horizon, went on to become one of his greatest triumphs.
I recall that story every time I attempt to crop away the visual fat from a flawed image, inside of which I suspect there might be a usable picture. Sometimes all I get for my trouble is a worse flop, but occasionally, I will find that a frame is one third, or one fourth, or fifty percent redeemable if I just wield the scissors with complete abandon. The first shot you see here illustrates my point.
Having shot dozens of pictures of egrets in every conceivable setting, I found that this particular bird was not really earning his sizable part of the real estate. Was it the pose? The exposure? A comparison to better captures on other days? Whatever the reason, I found myself more interested in the near-shore waters he was walking in than in anything he himself was doing. The water wasn’t filled with dramatic splashes or tidal ebbs, but was instead a slow, undulating kind of roll that created playful, elliptical games with the light. At that point, the whole mission of the image changed.
Literally cutting the egret off at the knees makes this a completely different picture.
After a series of partial “bird-ectomies”, in which I attempted to keep various portions of the egret’s body in the frame, I just reduced him to a pair of legs, and let the water take over as the star of the show. Again, it was a case of a usable inner picture, eclipsed by being just one of many components in a larger scene, becoming liberated by slicing away all other distractions. The result is hardly a masterpiece, but I prefer the repurposed version over the mediocre original. Turns out that most photographs don’t veer all the way to the two extremes of Really Amazing or Really Appalling, existing somewhere between the two poles. Like Capra, you have to be willing to burn the first two reels to get right to the action.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THEY’RE LINE CALLS, COIN TOSSES between success and failure, those thousands of photographs we generate over a lifetime that never quite stray into complete wretchedness or float all the way up to Beloved status. They float languidly in the vast midrange between the delightful and the awful that makes up most of our pictorial output, earning faint praise like “pretty good”, “not bad” or my favorite, “yeah, that’s OK.” They are the pictures that we fall “in like” with.
Sometimes I find it easier to cope with my absolute garbage than with the massive mound of mediocrity that occupies the middle floors of my personal output. At least the photos I took while swinging wildly for the fences show commitment, however misguided. After all in even my worst failures, there is also a trace of my grandest dreams, whereas the thousands of “good enough” shots show neither the wild abandon of going for broke or the grand miracle of high art. They’re just….there. Somebody cue the poet with the line about faint heart n’er winning fair lady, or something high-toned like that.
There are those who might even regard the mushy mediocre middle of their total photographic portfolio as just as worthless as their Total Misses, but I maintain that the stuff in the gooey center of our work files is exactly half-good, as well as half-bad. In fact, that’s the maddening thing about “OK” pictures. They never get where they’re headed.
The image seen here is a prime example of a picture that’s suspended between the goal posts. It’s almost well-composed, as well as almost fluid in dynamic range, almost texturally rich, almost, well a lot of things. It isn’t quite a stinker, but it also certainly isn’t a stunner. And as meh as you see it here, the original, wider shot was even more indecisive, with hot blowouts of the shoreline that were later cropped away and just too much information for a coherent narrative. And yet, I have spent the better part of three weeks trying to remain “in like” with the shot, trying to convince myself that it’s more successful than it is.
Of course, just as is the case with an abject failure, this shot is worth keeping. Because every failure is instructive to some degree, and the fact that I’m able to diagnose what kept the image from being good means I’ve already mined it for any clues on where improvement is needed. It just doesn’t need to be paraded around, that’s all. Plus, if nothing else, middling shots hone our editorial skills, since we have no business posting or boasting every single time we click the shutter.
Speaking of clicks, I recently determined that there have been over 130,000 of them on the camera that took this shot. Where does the time go? I “shutter” to think how many of those snaps added shame fodder to my lifetime hit/miss average. But, oh well. I think of the farmers in the Great Plains in the days of the Dust Bowl, living harvest-to-harvest in an insane state of constant gamble, who, in describing how they summoned the hope to go on, nicknamed themselves the “Next Year People”. When will I deliver on the unrealized promise of all my most mediocre shots? Next year, people.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS A CERTAIN DIVINE IMMUNITY attached to photographers who are lucky enough to remain amateurs, or, for those who do turn pro, the ability to remember how to shoot with an amateur brain. There used to be a cleanly defined line between people who had to make pictures for a living (under deadline, enslaved to editors, for the marketplace) and those who could never dream of doing so, but who might work every bit as hard just pleasing themselves. However, social media, with its ability to suddenly confer ( or cruelly withhold )sudden celebrity, has recently blurred this line between the careerists and the tinkerers. Now, even when we are making pictures for “no one”, we seem to be making pictures for everyone, anyway.
It’s getting harder to create a photograph in a feedback vacuum, to shoot without even a thought of how well a picture will be received. The tyranny of the new “like” and “fave” marketplace can riddle a photographer with doubt, gently bending his/her work to what might meet with the most approving eyes. In many ways, this new world is even more unforgiving, for amateurs, than the dreaded editing desk was for the professionals.
It’s more of a challenge than it used to be, these days, to allow oneself to make a picture like this one. The subject isn’t startling, or even especially unique, except to me. The composition is deliberately formalized, and so can’t qualify as avant-garde. The final shot, the product of a double exposure and some minimal color and contrast tweaking, is neither purely realistic nor challengingly abstract. In short, this picture is nothing in particular, except that it’s mine, made my way, for my own approval. I don’t have to worry that, as Frank Zappa would say, it suffers from N.C.P. (No Commercial Potential).
Any artist that is forced to produce for the popular market has two struggles: to achieve his vision and to package it for consumption by others. It’s THE tightrope act of a lifetime for photographers, with the amateurs envious of the pros’ access and the pros jealous of the casual snapper’s freedom. I have made my daily bread by a number of means over a lifetime, mostly under the gun of deadlines and editors in the print or electronic media, and so, while I have seldom earned a paycheck specifically with a camera, I have empathy for those who do.
There are things about working as a paid shooter that I will never have to endure, or suffer, and I know that. However, in the 21st century, even being an amateur is beginning to take on the haggard hassle that only used to accrue to the Guy Doing It For A Living. That is why the bigger fight in becoming a photographer is the mastery over one’s self rather than the perfection of mere technique. Sports and every other fun pursuit in our world has shown what happens when everything gets too serious and the meaningful meaninglessness goes out of something. In our art, we are being forced, more and more, to do everything for social reasons, to “take one for the team”. However, it is the pictures that you take from the team that truly remain your own, and that you will treasure the most over a lifetime.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I STOLE THIS BOOK.
That is…..I think I might have.
Actually, the truth is a good deal more nuanced than that. Rather than deliberately planning to loot my local library for it, I just…sorta accidentally…failed to return it. Ever. Call it passive-aggressive larceny.
Or just sloth (likeliest option).
To be truthful, the book is merely part of a wider pathology, a lifetime habit of returning, well, anything back to its rightful owner well past its due date. Back in the VHS era, the local Blockbuster probably should have mounted a “wanted” poster of my kisser near the cash register…..but, as it turned out, I probably paid for the manager’s kid’s first year of college with overdue fees that rivaled the operating budget of a small nation-state. The fact: I’m a bad borrower, and it doesn’t really matter what the borrowed thing is. Late library books were more a symptom than a cause, and so I most likely made no particularly mindful attempt to appropriate Frank Lloyd Wright’s A Testament for myself.
However, in re-discovering this relic during a recent house-cleaning and general junk inventory, I can certainly see how I might have dreamed of pinching it, given what its ideas…about artistic integrity, vision, courage and reason… have meant to me for over a third of my life. And, like many old objects I’ve stumbled over anew in recent years, it seemed reasonable to want to photograph it, to try to both see it for what it was and for what it merely is, now.
What it is, among other things, is an old library book, and so it made sense to show its most library-like feature….the now-bygone checkout pocket and circulation ticket mounted inside the back cover. Such systems, in an age of barcodes, are now, themselves, history, as much as the book itself, and so that is the “face” I wanted to display. The wearing and tearing of the binding and pages is also evidence of a sort, of the heavy love-use the book had received over time, and so that also needed to be part of the visual story. Finally, I had located, within the same closet that held the book, an old replacement lamp for a film projector, which I never, as it turned out, actually used. This lightbulb which never had its “lightbulb moment”, could now act as a kind of symbol of the inspiration that had poured forth from the book’s pages for me with every single reading. Pretty on the nose, but still satisfying.
The objects we keep are never completely captured on camera. Even when we think we are objectively recording a thing, we are interpreting it, and that ambiguous approach somehow fits the muddled memory of the book’s journey from Theirs to Mine. I might have stolen it, after all. But maybe I just couldn’t make myself tell it goodbye. But now, in my picture, regardless of official ownership, I had made it indisputably mine at last, anyhow.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I HAVE THANKED MY WIFE SEVERAL TIMES IN RECENT YEARS for the fact that, for the first time in my life, I am consistently, consciously aware of birdsong. This is no small thing, developing an acuity for something which has been all around me, largely undetected, for my entire existence, and which, at this late point, is suddenly, miraculously obvious to me all the time. Of course we didn’t just move our house to where the most birds are, nor did Marian suddenly give them a power that the Creator somehow overlooked. Instead, she has facilitated a change in me, something I am not even consistently to do for myself. And that’s huge.
And, as all things will, this stands as yet another metaphor for photography.
Training the eye to see the world beyond the fundamentals is the most important element in making an image, far outranking any merely technical consideration. Once you learn to see critically, curiously, your pictures, and the process of making them, operate on a completely different level, with even your “imperfect” shots taking on a distinct character. Often, when someone witnesses something horrible, they remark that they “can’t un-see” the event in question. However, vision in photography makes that condition a blessing. Shooting thousands of images over years broadens the scope of how you evaluate what you see, as well as how you plan based on that knowledge. You become a better and better shooter the more you can’t “un-see” the world.
Shooting happens faster and easier once you’ve cultivated the habit of seeing better, because, even in rushed or difficult conditions, you already have a basic pre-conception of what you want your pictures to be. You develop a mental sketchpad of sorts, placing you steps ahead in bending the performance of the camera to your will. That’s not a guarantee that you’ll always get what you went for, but it is a guarantee that you’ll know more clearly what you’re after, and that moves you closer to getting it. The image seen above is an example of my eye having evolved to a certain level at a certain point in time, and thus being able to convert some of my perception into a picture. I could not have made the same picture the same way ten years before, and, ten years hence, I will not make the same choices I made here.
Birdsong existed before I learned how to listen for it. Likewise, the things revealed in your best pictures is not composed of things you invented, just things you learned how to see. More precisely, it’s a smorgasbord of things you no longer can un-see. And the better your own vision, the better the chance that you’ll convey something amazing to your camera.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN THE PRACTICE OF PHOTOGRAPHY, it’s often difficult to know when a simple composition will serve as the best overall tool for an effective narrative. We all heard something from our ninth-grade science teacher about the shortest distance between two points being a straight line, and some of that directness, expressed as an image that gets to the point without needless visual distractions or detours, certainly applies to some of our best work.
But then again…
Some pictures certainly suffer from an overabundance of detail. The eye can get lost on its way to the main point of the photograph; competing components of equal appeal can wrestle each other for dominance in a scene; and, of course, excessive clutter can defuse a photo’s impact altogether. Imagine a large Where’s Waldo? panorama in which, to your frustration, you just never manage to find Waldo at all.
That said, there are subjects which are busy, busy, busy, but which might actually lose their power if you tried to tidy them up or streamline them. Consider the above shot of a hallway inside the Library of Congress. Here is a place where no one even considered the minimalist credo that “less is more”. Indeed, this magnificent building is about majesty, power, prestige, officialdom, if you will. It means to shout loud and proud. It is an expression of an empire, an edifice to the grandeur of the ideas contained within its walls. Simple and spare just won’t cut it for such a place, and a photograph taken of it needs to respect that.
Even in places that boast this level of ornamentation, however, you can take small steps to prevent your viewer’s eye from being overwhelmed. An even, bright exposure, for example, with nothing lurking in shadows to trick your viewer into going on a scavenger hunt; sharp focus from front to back to allow all the detail to be prominently displayed; and the use of whatever leading lines might be in the structure, to keep the eye moving in as close to a single direction as possible, emphasizing depth and scale.
The old “keep it simple, stupid” rule does, indeed serve photographers well in scads of cases. But for those few occasions where busier is better, go full-tilt boogie and really ladle it on. The knack of knowing when to say “how much” and when to say “too much” is some of the best editorial education you can ever treat yourself to.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
LOOKING BACK AT THE EARLIEST FORMATS FOR AMATEUR SNAPSHOTS, it’s almost possible to hear the frustration of photographers trying to deliver the world in a greatly constricted work space. Peruse your grandparents’ photo albums and you will find a number of images printed in such small sizes as to render anything more complex than a candid of a friend nearly unreadable. Size doesn’t matter in all things, but, for some subjects, the canvas needs to have a little breathing space.
Serious photographers with bulky medium and large format cameras could always create work on any scale that they preferred (think Ansel Adams), but amateurs in the first decades of the twentieth century were often confined to small spaces, many around the size of the present-day “credit card” prints produced by the Instax line of instant cameras. This miniature-scaled way of seeing in the world was death for landscape work especially, and it was not until the introduction of the 35mm camera and improved technology for enlargement (including the option of slide projection) that mountain ranges, seashores and canyons started to get their proper due.
Now, while it’s possible to photographically capture and suggest grand scenes, our urban sprawl hems us in once more, littered as it is with wires, signs and neon clutter. It’s not what to shoot, but where to stand when shooting it, that makes the difference. Often we ourselves are so desensitized to the garbage through which we habitually view beauty that we’re surprised when the camera records the visual debris that we’ve taught ourselves not to see. I once heard a Nikon rep say that, even in the middle of the ocean, some people’s pictures could somehow manage to have telephone lines visible in them.
But that’s a problem of seeing. Thing is, even when a photographer apprehends an epic-scale scene, getting a shot of it that’s free of junk can be daunting. In the case of this image, I woke up struck by the beauty of enormous banks of clouds rolling through the skies in a part of Arizona that is typically free of anything but solid blue. The problem soon became where to drive/pull over/aim to make sure that nothing else punctuated the impact of these enormous billows. I drove about ten miles until I got to a tiny municipal airport whose elevated observation deck afforded nearly unbroken horizons in all directions and started to crank away. Strangely, it was when I got my unbroken sky that I realized that there was nothing of scale to indicate how big the formations actually were. Enter a tiny mosquito of a private plane, barely big enough to create a flint of light to announce its presence. The ballet of big and little was now complete. The photographer’s job in showing the size of something lies simply in supplying the answer, “compared to what?” It’s Storytelling 101, it’s simple to do, and it makes the difference between a picture and a narrative.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHIC COMPOSITION MAY MATTER MORE than any other single aspect of technical mastery. The godlike power to decide what to include in the frame is the ultimate tool in the making of any photograph. It sets the terms of engagement, stating, merely by what’s been included, this is what we’re talking about today. That makes the photographer a narrator…a storyteller. The rest is all just measurements.
Macro photography, or, as we used to call it, “close-ups” are the purest exercise in compositional choice, because in getting nearer to our subject, we are forced to be aware, in the making of a picture, just how much of the rest of the world we are paring away…whether because it’s distracting, or too busy, or merely because it’s not what our picture is “about”. Macro work also shows, in the clearest possible terms, what happens when too much is left in the frame, and reinforces the same discipline that’s vital in composing a shot at any scale, i.e., including what communicates best, and snipping out the rest. It also becomes a useful introduction to “abstraction”, which is valuable even for people who think they hate that term.
When you abstract something, you are merely pulling it free of its normal contexts and associations. Once you are close enough to your subject, you are working more and more in terms of raw light, patterns, and texture, in a way that makes the familiar unfamiliar. You see compositional elements purely. For example, a piano, as a fully-sized object, registers in the mind as a quite particular thing, whereas magnified detail applied to the arrangement of its inner workings, is an exercise in mechanics, math, the pure arrangement of repetitive motifs. Composition in macro , then, is always great practice for composition in general. When you are zoomed in tight, you must make real choices as to what will make the cut for the final image, and these choices are obvious, and immediately understood. Pull back out for shots taken in the wider world, and that choice-making ability is now more instinctual. There’s a reason so many people say that, in the acquisition of a skill, you should start small. Because little things mean a lot, and the sooner that thinking gets into our pictures, the better tales we tell.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS MUCH AS WE’D LIKE TO PRE-VISUALIZE OR PLAN OUR IMAGES, the practice of photography is still chiefly a test to see how well we calculate and react in the moment. We all love to map out the various itineraries for our respective photo safaris in advance, but are also keenly aware that everything, literally everything in our blueprint can, and should be, blown to bits the moment magic is afoot.
The image you see here is the product of such a moment.
Officially, on the day this was taken, I was at the Coon Bluff Recreation Site in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest to scope out new birdwatching sites. I was a first-timer on the property, wandering pretty much in whichever direction my friends decided to drift. At some point, a smaller portion of our party decided to trek along the edge of the Salt River, in search of what I had no idea, or design. Half a mile or so later, I was surprised to have our point man remark that he had seen two horses wading and munching along the shore.
Barely five more minutes went by before it became clear that an entire small herd of wild mustangs had decided to cross the river from the far shore toward where we were standing. In what swiftly became something out of my own personal chapter of Lonesome Dove, I scrambled for an open space on the river’s sandy beach and, without thinking very much, cranked out as many frames at as many different exposures as I could. The entire parade got across in the space of barely two minutes. There was no way to plan: this was the frontier equivalent of what urban street shooters call “run and gun”. All in or all out.
But here’s the deal: while the appearance of a clutch of wild horses during a casual stroll certainly exemplifies the There Are No Second Chances rule in a very obvious way, all photographers are operating under that same rule all the time, in every situation. We may not be at risk of missing our own personal Wild West Fantasy, but there are thousands of expressions, variances of light, rapid transitions and other immeasurable changes that we stand to lose in every single shooting scenario. We are always being challenged to detect and isolate such moments-within-moments, with big events or small, and we need to calculate and click before the horses reach the opposite shore.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE MOST REPEATED TROPES IN PHOTOGRAPHIC INSTRUCTION in recent years has been some variant on the “there are no rules” theme, as if all of image-making were some miraculous hybrid of instinct and chance. And while I certainly applaud an attitude of flexibility when it comes to artistic expression, and even allowing for personal preferences for baseline techniques or practices, I would assert that, for nearly all photographers, there is one immutable law, and that is, simply, to allow yourself the opportunity to fail.
Failure is the cheapest and most lasting of educational building blocks. No art happens out of a natural superabundance of talent or taste: it has to be nurtured through the refinement of negative feedback. Even the most advanced AI devices feed off of bad data; evaluating errors, filtering them out, re-designing systems to reject those errors in future iterations. Failure in photography, defined here as “making bad pictures”, is the only correct path to making good ones. There is no technical advancement or ideal toy that can short-cut this process. You simply have to put in the time.
This is means learning to love your losers, to, in fact, have a particular gratitude for the shots you blow. Just as we lament over other mistakes we’ve made in our lives, we naturally linger over our artistic miscalcuations. The mis-read light. The fouled focus. The Compositions From Hell. The gap between what we could see and what we could induce our camera to see. And, most significantly, our own ignorance or life inexperience. Mistakes make us questions things in a way that successes seldom do.
A picture doesn’t even have to be a flat-out flop to gnaw at us, to demand re-takes and re-thinks, as seen in the image above, which neither completely delights or disgusts me, but certainly haunts me. The near misses can sometimes nag us as mercilessly as the missed-by-a-miles. More aggravating still is the fact that some of the very things that drive us mad will totally skate past the casual observer, or even appear to them to be “just fine”. Happily, as we develop, we learn to trust our own eye and dismiss everyone else’s as, well, irrelevant. Buying a more expensive camera, trying to “go with the flow”, following trends….nothing can compete with the slow, gradual, agonizing, and eventually gratifying process of snapping a lot of duds and changing course as we digest what went wrong until the problem is addressed.
The study of photography is fat with experts who swear it’s all about a whole bunch of rules on one end and people on the other extreme who declare that rules are meaningless. The real truth, your truth, is somewhere in between those two poles. But believe this: there is no substitute, formal or otherwise, for doing your homework, loving your losers as if they were wayward children, and working honestly to bring them right.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I TEND TO LOOK MOST KINDLY ON THOSE LENSES that will perform the widest variety of tasks. Over time, photography can easily experience what the military call mission creep, with equipment escalating in both cost and complexity as the hobby sinks its roots into the bedrock of our little shooter’s souls. This can contribute to an ever-escalating array of specialized tools, or what I call more and more of things that do less and less. Over the decades, my aching back and wounded wallet have conspired to make me seek out optics that can handle macro, landscape, street and portrait work all by themselves, shrinking the number of instances in which I have to switch to hyper-dedicated gizmos, thus increasing how much I lug about with me. That said (don’t you hate sentences that begin this way?), there are times when you need a scalpel instead of a Swiss army knife.
A fisheye is the textbook example of an over-specialized lens, a hunk of glass that delivers a very distinctive, very controversial view of the world. To some, they are the gateway to innovation, to viewpoints beyond the power of the human eye. To others, they’re a gimmicky abomination. They’re really just ultra wide-angles that take in such a vast view (anywhere from 120 to 180 degrees or even wider) that they literally bend the field of vision, encompassing shots within an actual circle in full-frame cameras or what’s called a diagonal fisheye in cropped sensors. In both cases, the shot features dark vignettes at the corners in images where proportions are nearly normal at the center, then increasingly bowed-out closer to the edge of the shot. They are still in the minority as far as general lens use is concerned for a variety of reasons, including the rarity of cases in which they can be truly appropriate or effective, the heinous cost of the good ones, and the heinous artifacts in the cheap ones.
I happened to have lucked out with a fisheye that is fairly crisp and free of chroma flaring at f/16 or smaller, although the accompanying need for increased ISO bears watching. I shoot on a crop, so I don’t worry about maintaining the “encircled” look since I can’t get it anyway, allowing me to crop to wherever the frame is strongest. In the “before” shot of a strange but huge art installation at Phoenix’ Desert Botanical Garden (see above), you see what a standard 18mm wide-angle will do. Given that I had very limited space either behind or above me, there was no way to back up in order to include the entire scene, and so, out came the fisheye, shooting at about 12mm and taking in a 160mm field of view (see below).
Now, standing in exactly the same place, I could see where the “yellow wave” of straw-like fibers originated at the far end of the shot, while the distortion factor in the lens gave the flow of straws a kind of “S” curve as it made its way to the foreground. Other considerations: super-wides exaggerate the distance between front and back, making the whole installation seem more vast than it was in reality; and also, by keeping most of the crucial action in the center, I kept the image’s most radical distortion (like on the footbridge at upper left) confined to the outer edge of the composition.
Would I, for this shot, have resorted to the fisheye except out of desperation? Unlikely. It is not a “go to” tool in any real way, since like all gimmick glass tends to pull attention away from the subject and toward itself. However, even though I love to head out with “one lens to rule them all”, I find, like any good sawbones, that I will, occasionally, need that scalpel.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE BY-PRODUCTS OF PROLONGED ISOLATION is the re-training of the artist’s eye, as more and more information is gleaned from fewer and fewer sources. The lifer convict thus knows more about masonry than the non-prisoner, simply because he is forced to stare at it longer. Or, to put it another way, as a person’s physical world contracts, as it has for many in the present era, things that are repeatedly re-seen can reveal more data than those that are quickly glimpsed. Notice that I am into my fourth sentence before uttering the dread word minimalism. And yet here we are.
I almost never deliberately seek out minimal compositions, at least not as part of some aesthetic religion; that is, I don’t set set out to make pictures that are, as I call them, “nearly naked”, stripped of all decoration or ornament. However, during the various stages of the creation of an image, I often decide that simpler is better, and re-set my course accordingly. And, as the worldwide Forced Hibernation has dragged on, I have found that a certain streamlining of many of my pictures is kicking in organically. Some of it occurs because I am forced to work with the same limited subject matter again and again, since traveling to a wider numbers of locations is presently off the menu. That can mean doing more than one “pass” on some pictures, and discovering. in that process, that I can, indeed, say more with less.
Those who already possessed sage wisdom or a certain Zen zeal might remark here that I should always have been on this journey, this growing sense of how to go about de-cluttering my vision. And to that, I would answer a resounding “maybe”. The image you see here is so simple a composition that I always would have approached it without the need for passing airplanes, utility poles, the surrounding parking lot, etc. However, where, before, I might have favored more detailed tableaux, I am finding, in a newly compelling way, that increasingly simpler pictures are calling to me these days. Likewise the rendering of excess detail or texture, which you’ll see is fairly absent from this picture. Does this mean I am growing as a person? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I am making pictures in a different creative environment for the moment, albeit with no guarantees that my technique will be fundamentally altered once I’m allowed out of the house more often (this site is three miles from my home). Still.
“There are two ways to be rich” children’s author Jackie French Koller wrote in 1948. “One is by acquiring much, and the other is by desiring little”. So, while I’m looking more intently at the masonry within my cell these days anyway, I might as well find out if that richer way of seeing will follow me once I’m sprung. In the words of another sage, Chuck Berry, “C’est la vie, say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell…”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE LATEST VIRUS-FORCED GLOBAL HIBERNATION, in which we try to wait out a capital “T”-sized terror, has left us alone with a lot of lower-case “T”s as well, that being our accumulated To-Do lists, which, what the hell, since we’re stuck here anyway, we might as well tackle, right? Said lists can contain anything, from repairing a squeaky door hinge to paring down that pile of unanswered junk mail…but, whatever the list’s holdings, the human impulse remains, yeah, well, maybe tomorrow, if I’m not busy.
Even the most severely sequestered amongst us are occasionally allowed out for a walk and a breath of air, and for those who also happen to be photographers, the itch needs regular scratching. But once a huge percentage of our usual haunts are closed for the duration, you must make pictures with whatever subject matter still remains in the rotation. For me, occupying one of the southwest states in the USA, that means heading to the various open spaces and digging the scenery, which sounds like a welcome respite, unless you know me. I wouldn’t exactly say that landscapes and me aren’t on speaking terms, but I would agree that we generally speak different languages. Thing is, when the great outdoors is most of what you’re going to be allowed to make pictures with, you must get your language straight, or give up the ghost. And so, during the worldwide lay-off, I’m communing with nature and hoping something worthwhile seeps into my pictures. It’s not easy for me. It’s more like “to-do” with a vengeance.
Give me a buzzing urban environment, a tableau in which people are scaled and contextualized and do battle with all manner of their own dwellings and creations, and the photographic truths fairly jump out of my camera. I see stories. I sense relationships. I create speculations and divine meanings. But point that same camera at a tree, a mountain, a seashore, and….well, it’s not as if I can’t make something “nice” out of the effort, but I must struggle to pull the truths out. I mean, I can compose and capture the essential beauty of a scene as well as the next guy, but it doesn’t feel like reporting as much as recording. I feel at the mercy of nature’s caprices in a way that I never do in cities. In working with landscapes I sense a division between what’s visually appealing and what’s emotionally compelling. My head can dig the scene but my heart is lagging behind. What’s wrong with me?
All photographers gravitate toward interpretations of the world as they see it, and they likewise grapple with ( or outright avoid) whatever their short suit happens to be. Some shooters are terrified of portraits. Others break out in a rash when forced to calculate arcane lighting schemes. No one gets it all. I marvel at the natural world. I do. I like solitude and silence and contemplation and all that there Thoreau stuff. But after long periods of silent dawns and rolling clouds, I feel an irresistible urge to head for a very loud, mob-crushed subway car. Gershwin once said that certain rhythm patterns came to him when he was clacking over train tracks. Others must go completely Ansel Adams and see the world within the veins of a single leaf. As it happens, our international time-out is occurring just as I have taken possession of a new camera, and so my mindfulness is already at a kind of artificial peak. Perhaps that process, coupled with a forced slow-down out in the wilds, will be enough to get my juices flowing.
Or at least, I’ll get a decent amount of exercise.
Hey, hug enough trees and you can really build up those biceps.