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.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE WAYS WE USE PHOTOGRAPHY TO NAVIGATE through our tricky lives is to use it to sort of mark our personal territory. To leave a trail of bread crumbs about the places we passed on our journey. Pictures stitch together a rough chronology of who we are, who we care about, what we believe is important. And one of the most conspicuous parts of this timeline involves our interactions with each other, and the images that those interactions generate.
Our virtual world, with all its facebookings and instagramations, is but a simulation of the dimensionally deep contact we have with each other in our best moments. It’s a wonderful abbreviation of full human experience, but it is just that: an abbreviation. A synthetic version of real interplay between real people. Photographs, by contrast, are of endless interest to us because they are chronicles of those interplays. A visual record. A testament. As we often say, the camera both reveals and conceals, showing what might have happened, what we wish had happened….and maybe, in lucky moments, a trace of what actually did happen when we met. And talked. And shared. And traded lives, if only for fractions of seconds.
The picture you see here is what, for lack of a more precise term, was a happy accident. It wasn’t planned. Heck, it wasn’t even deliberately framed, being a snap taken from lap level in the second it occurred to me that the two men seen here might be having a moment. An exchange. A life-swapping. Turns out, without really having done much of anything on purpose, I walked away with what I regarded as a story. It doesn’t even bother me that I don’t know the players, or the plot, or the outcome. The story, as seen in the picture, just is. There is a connection between Man A and Man B that lives on in frozen form and it doesn’t require, or even benefit from, a word of explanation from me. It’s something real, even if it’s not something real clear. It’s a record of the Luxury Of We.
As humans, we crave connection. We even settle for social media, which is a sharp step down in true intimacy, just because we want that contact so badly. Me? Give me a real human moment every time. Snapping such special exchanges is more than mere “posting”: it’s witnessing, and that’s a whole other level of experience.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS PHOTOGRAPHERS, WE PROVIDE THE PROGRAM WHICH CAMERAS ARE INSTRUCTED TO PERFORM. The actual box itself, like many other tools, is really a dumb thing, fueled not by its own ideas but instructed to carry out the whims of its owner. The camera thus does not really “see”, but merely follows the direction of those who can.
If they can.
The frustrating part of photography’s learning curve is that, over time, we all come to think of our most enlightened ideas as, well, primitive. The things we regard as obvious in our present incarnation as picture-makers were once invisible to us. And it follows that our present blind spots may, in a future version of ourselves, be the source of our greatest accuity. We are thus learning photography on several planes. There is the merely technical level, in which the mastery of aperture and focus is the primary mission. Then there is learning to see, as we begin to recognize patterns, themes or compositions. Finally there is the ability to evaluate what we see, to place different emphases on things depending on how we ourselves have evolved. This transference can take a pictorial element from the status of an object to that of a subject. We notice a thing differently and thus we photograph it differently.
I find myself in the process of such a shift at the time of this writing, mostly because I have recently made new friends within the birdwatching community, mostly due to my wife’s passion for the hobby. Now, of course, I have taken my share of bird photos over a lifetime, but most of them could be classified as opportunistic accidents (one landed next to where I was sitting) or as props within a composition, something to add scale, balance or flavor to, let’s say a landscape. That is to say that birds, for me, have been objects in my pictures, not, for the most part, subjects. Lately, however, I can see a subtle shift in my own prioritization of them.
Part of my pedestrian attitude toward them is borne of my own technical limits, as I have never owned the kind of superzooms that are required to make a detailed study of them. If I can’t afford to bring them into close view and sharp detail, it’s just easier to represent them as dots, flecks or shadows, as you see in the image at left. This, in turn, connects to my admittedly jaundiced view of telephoto images in general, since I think the gear required to capture them invites as many problems as it solves. I prefer prime lenses for their simplicity, clarity, efficiency of light use and, let’s face it, affordability. I realize now that all those biases are under review: I am, for better or worse, revising how I see the natural world, or, more specifically, the living things within it. Much of this is thanks to Marian, who sees the earth as a kind of game preserve with we bipeds charged with its responsible curation. The influence of her good example has been amplified further by my rage against the corporate titans who would lay waste to the last unicorn if it lined their pockets, and the fact that, at this juncture, their side seems to have the upper hand.
And so as both a photographer and a person, I can’t really relegate birds, or bison, or duck-billed platypuses to the background of my work any more. I may never become a great nature photographer, but that’s not the point. Fact is, the journey involved in sharpening our eye is always a staircase. Each step is important, but the upward journey itself is the main thing. Any photographer lucky enough to have his/her seeing powers challenged, even changed, is blessed indeed.
I know this is true. A little bird told me.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE FIRST TIME I SAW THE STATUE, situated at the side of a newly opened bookstore, I thought it looked a bit…lonely, rather like the first chair you move into an otherwise empty apartment. The sheer amount of sidewalk and parking lot surrounding the bronze figure of Mahatma Gandhi made it look like someone had delivered it to the wrong place, and was perhaps returning at some future time to see it on to its rightful owner. And while I certainly have reverence for the eminent leader as, well, an eminent leader, I would have thought a more predictable bust of Poe or effigy of Twain might have made a better outside advertisement for the tomes within.
Then, a year later, I got a second chance to see the possibilities.
In the intervening period, and as they are wont to do, a very lush desert bird of paradise bush had sprung up, flowering fully by the end of this summer, nearly obscuring the Mahatma and placing him in a very different kind of visual space. Suddenly I visualized a design, or at least a design idea, for an image. In traditional Indian art, the same flame-tip orange found in the shrub’s flowers are a very dominant color, symbolizing sun, flames, birds, and the raiment of various gods. The sea of blossoms now fronting the statue seemed less to me like plants and more to me like banks of fire, or oceanic waves, or those brilliantly colored clouds of dye dust billowing up during celebrations and rituals all across India. I began to imagine Gandhi as a mystical figure emerging from those clouds, as if released from the bonds of time, or maybe even as Shiva himself summoned him forth. The problem with this whole conception now became how to render something fanciful with a machine (the camera) whose default is merely to document.
But, of course, that was the fun of it…
I had one very fortunate ally in the fading, pre-sunset light, which amped up the orange in the blossoms and also bounced that same color off the shiner portions of the statue’s bronze. I also figured that the flowers on the bird of paradise might be more suggestive of movement if they weren’t rendered in absolutely sharp focus, so I opened my lens all the way to f/2, shrinking my depth of field to almost nothing. I then concentrated any sharpness to be had on the statue’s head alone, isolating it in a kind of focal sandwich with the softened foreground and background as the “bread”, if you will. The slight glowing affect achieved when shooting wide open on this particular lens (A Soviet-era Helios 44M) also helped the dreamlike quality suggested by what I saw in my mind. The result is not a technically perfect realization of all this, but it at least records the rudiments of my idea, much like a sketchbook “rough”, a field test of the idea that I may refine later.
The only really important thing here was in reminding myself that the addition of a single new element in our view of the familiar can substantially expand one’s options in photography. The newly added straw may not break the camel’s back, but someone may be inspired to remark, “oh, you stuck a straw on his back. That’s just what was needed….”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
A Failed Harvest.
The Fish That Got Away.
I Had It, But I Lost It.
Mistakes Were Made.
However you term episodes of photographic failure…..I mean, complete, utter freaking camera-borne defeat, two things are true.
It does happen.
And it will happen to you.
Not that many of us want to admit it, mind you. In an age in which, on any given photo day, we almost always bring back some kind of technically complete image, it’s easy to confuse any product with a successful one. Yeah, it’s a picture. But that doesn’t make it a good picture.
In the old days, there were was a more dramatic line between success and failure, since failure usually meant no picture at all. Underexposed, unrecognizable blobs. Masses of color that, coherence-wise, added up to nothing. Not so in our current era, in which it’s much more likely that the resulting image is, for lack of a better term, usable. Factor in increasingly facile repair tools and editing processes, and that number of “acceptables” climbs even further.
But you know when a picture has what it takes, and to what extent you’ve bent the rules of editorial judegment with one, even going so far as to talking yourself into thinking it’s better than it really is. That’s the seductive power of digital, in that it brings even our worst work close to the passable mark, making it harder to disown our “kids” than it was in the day when a lousy picture was more irretrievably bad, that is, beyond intervention. But it’s our very ability to intervene that can convince us that the shot was worth intervening over, and that’s frequently just not true.
And so there will be bupkis days. We walk out boldly. We are equipped. We are artistically hungry. We are experienced and trained. We know what we want.
And yet we bring back nothing.
Never forget that the ability to know that you missed the mark (even mightily) is the most valuable skill you will ever develop as a photographer. The strength to say “no” to yourself evolves slowly. In some of us, it never evolves at all. But we should thank Camera God for it, and, by extension, thank the same God for the demonstrably bad photos we are likely to make from time to time. Because if we can’t tell excellent from excrement in our own work, the game really is up. That’s why I am always banging on about loving your mistakes, because finally, they are your best teachers. It ain’t fun to be around them, but, then again, as you recall your most astute mentors, how many of them were a groove to hang with? Whatever. For photography’s sake, we all need to become comfortable with dumping the occasional day’s work in the garbage. Because nothing converts garbage into gorgeous other than hard, unsentimental work. There never has been any other shortcut and there never will be. Or to frame it in food terms (and eventually I always do), consider software and such as sauce. It’s tasty, but it ain’t no substitute for steak.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY IS ABSTRACTION, our subjective representation of what we think things “really look like”…..operative word being “we”. But it’s also a process of extraction, of pulling a moment out of time’s flowing sequence and trapping it in amber. If life is a continuously unfurling roll of movie film, photographers specialize in stealing single frames of that reality, hoping we can make the argument that our frozen sample symbolically stands for the organic whole. If we make that argument successfully, we’re great photographers. I emphasize this obvious concept because we need to remain mindful of what’s going on every time we frame a shot. Occasionally we have minutes to make the decisions on what that frame will be. More typically, it’s seconds. And occasionally, it’s pieces of seconds.
Shooters already have to grapple with the fact that we are usually making static shots of constantly moving things. That’s one kind of motion. Then there is the secondary stress created by the fact that we ourselves are also moving. We snap from car windows, from escalators, from trains and subways, even while physically chasing our quarry in papparazi “run-and-gun” mode. Thus what is already a difficult sorting and choosing process is made even quicker and more crucial. The extractions in our pictures are based on a furiously fast analysis of what’s important, as well as what’s dispensable, within the frame. It’s also about a virtually instantaneous formula for what’s technically required to get the picture made. These decisions become a little easier with practice, but any comfort we’ve built up over the years can be quickly shattered when a different kind of photo opp presents itself, one which upends our usual or comfortable approaches. Then everything’s a race.
Urban images are especially challenging. Cities themselves are convulsing with steadily increasing change, altering the nature or terms of a potential picture in days or hours. Like old-time news shutterbugs, the urban photographer is truly on deadline. With that in mind, I take a shoot-it-or-lose-it stance when moving past anything I regard in a city as temporary, figuring that it is even more fleeting for me than it may be for other people. In any event, I always harvest everything I can physically shoot, and sort out the weeds later. The makeshift subway stop viewing window of construction along the 7 train line between Queens and Manhattan that you see here is gone by now, but the picture stays. Perfection? Hardly. But photography is also a game of percentages, and I am at least 100% happier for having made the attempt as not.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOUR CAMERA IS FAIRLY CRAMMED with features and functions that may or may not help you make better pictures. Certainly, all are intended as conveniences or shortcuts, but, since no one will ever utilize 100% of their gear’s potential gimmicks, you alone must decide which menus and goodies will actually help you exercise the most control over your results, and which are merely distractions. Your own path as a photographer will decide the real value of your camera’s various add-ons.
One automatic setting that I personally toyed with for a time but now almost exclusively avoid is the so-called “burst” setting, which allows you to automatically snap a ton of images very quickly by merely depressing and holding the shutter button. Its appeal is chiefly in helping to track fast-moving activities, like sports, children, or any other rapidly changing situation that presents challenge in setting or formulating shots on the fly. The camera is basically taking pictures faster than you suppose that you could plan them yourself, the idea being that, upon review, something in that batch must be usable, with the also-rans just being deleted later.
But I really find this mode a detriment, not a bonus, simply because the entire picture-taking process has been handed over to the camera. The shooter is completely passive, a bystander to a machine that is now making all the decisions. It’s like spraying a fusillade of bullets over a wide arc in the hope that you’ll hit something…anything, and it’s about as far from purposeful picture-making as you can get. I realize that the fear of missing something great can be tempting, but taking a whole bunch of pictures real fast, none of which could be anything other than a technically acceptable accident, is not a creative decision. How can it be?
Listen, I get it. Things happen fast, and it takes a great deal of practice in shooting in changing conditions. But the idea that there’s no time to frame or conceive an image just because it’s in motion is a false one. Will some opportunities be missed if you have to compose and click in the moment? Sure. Will some choices be unproductive? Yes. But the results will be your results. The image you see above was taken in a concert environment, which is just as volatile as any kid’s baseball game or birthday party. Faces, physical blocking, postures and light change mightily from moment to moment. But there is still time to plan a shot. Yes, your reaction time is measured in seconds, but there is time. More importantly, you can change your mind about whether to try something. You have direct influence over what’s planned and attempted. The camera is carrying out your commands. That’s the important part: they are your commands.
The shot you see here is the product of about fifty shots that were either deleted on the fly or winnowed out in the editing process. But I know what they are because I shot them. That’s not my vanity talking: it’s just the difference between learning to trust yourself and handing that trust over to the machine. For me, the choice is simple.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE, IN THE VERY INSTANT THAT I COMPOSE AND SNAP A PHOTOGRAPH, it occurs to me that, in the past, there might have been circumstances under which I talked myself out of taking that very same shot. That is, there is something in the scene before me that, at some time, might have convinced me not to attempt the picture at all. I don’t know whether to interpret this feeling as proof of growth of any type, or whether it just demonstrates my utter lack of confidence. I just know that, on different days, I can be a very different kind of photographer.
As habitual users of The Normal Eye already know, this small-town newspaper is less about the mechanics of taking a picture and more about the motivations. If we don’t understand what compels us to click/not click in particular situations, it’s pretty hard for us to figure what the whole thing’s about. Photographs are chosen, not “taken”. So, let’s peel apart my inner conversation in the making of the image seen below.
In looking at this scene from two years ago, in which some shadowy residential streets of Reno, Nevada are back-stopped by the Sierras, I could, through my own experience, easily rattle off a short grocery list of reasons not to attempt the picture. Among them:
There is too wide a contrast between the foreground and background (but is that a problem, really?).
I’m shooting through a window and therefore can’t absolutely suppress glare and reflection (but is that a deal breaker?).
There is, at first glimpse, no human story in evidence (or is there merely an absence of people in the frame? Aren’t the houses indicative of a “human story”?).
Okay, I’ll take the picture, but I’ll totally fix it later in “post”( fix it, or over-cook it and make it “ideal” rather than natural?).
……..and so on, with the additional inclusion of the most compelling “why not to” reason of them all:
the last time I tried something like this, it was a disaster.
You can see where this can lead. The very experience that should be helping you make more, better informed choices can actually scare you into seeing certain shooting situations as fraught with risk, as something to be avoided. Since we know what didn’t work in the past, we tend to think we also know what won’t work in the future. In reality, though, every time we’re up to bat, some little thing is different from our last time. Huge stuff like a different camera or lens, small stuff like being tired or distracted and every other variant in between. We may think we’ve “been here before”, but that’s only generally true. The only real way to make a picture a success or failure is to try to shoot it. Guesswork, even guesswork based on real-life experience, can paralyze. Sift through what you know and what you’ve lived through. Re-live all your so-called “failed” pictures, and then get back on the horse. As Rudyard Kipling said, “meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same.”
I don’t preach many absolutes here, but remember this one:
Always. Shoot. The. Picture.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE MASS PROLIFERATION OF THE CELL PHONE has fundamentally changed the dynamics of personal interaction, in a way unforeseen in the first days of Alexander Graham Bell’s original devices. In general, the first telephones were seen as an overall boon to mankind. They annihilated distance, sped up commerce, established connections between every person on the planet and every other person on the planet. If anyone in the nineteenth century had been familiar with the phrase “win-win”, the arrival of the phone might have elicited its first use.
But let’s now examine conversation itself, thinking of it as potentially photographic, an exchange which may not be overheard, but which, in terms of street photography, can be, if you will, overseen. Many wonderful images have been captured of people in the act of this kind of vigorous verbal ballet, their joy, vulnerability and engagement making for solid, natural visual drama. And the thing that has been at the base of many a conversation is that it was necessary for people to be physically adjacent to each other in order to have it. The telephone’s physical “reach” was finite. You had to be where a phone was to use one. From home. From the office. Or whenever Clark Kent freed up a booth.
With the arrival of the mobile, however, came the elimination, in millions more conversations, of the need for face-on communications….which, in turn, eliminated the “overseen” direct chat from the photographer’s daily street menu. Certainly it isn’t hard to see at least one half of a million calls ( try walking the streets without seeing one), but the narrative of a traditional conversation, captured visually by the camera, offers substantially more impact. Half a phone conversation is certainly real, but it isn’t real interesting. Technology is never really win-win, after all. In actuality, you trade off managable losses for potential major wins.
There is something palpably authentic about the connection between the women in the above image. And unlike the case of a shot of someone on their phone, the camera in this case doesn’t have to suggest or guess. It can show two people in active engagement. Trading that photographic opportunity away for mobility and convenience is one of the real consequences of the wireless revolution. And as a photographer, you may find yourself longing for a bygone, more personal kind of connectivity.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S FAIR TO SAY that photographers are occasionally the worst possible judges of what will save or spoil a picture. Try as we may to judiciously assemble the perfect composition, there are random forces afoot in the cosmos that make our vaunted “concepts” look like nothing more than lucky guesses. And that’s just the images that actually worked out.
All great public places have within them common spaces in which the shooter can safely trust to such luck, areas where the general cross-traffic of humanity guarantees at least a fatter crop of opportunity for happy marriages between passersby and props. At Boston’s elegant Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the surrounding walls of the central court are the main public collecting point, with hundreds of visitors framed daily by the arched windows and the architectural splendor of a re-imagined 15th-century Venetian palace. The couple seen here are but one of many pairings observable in a typical day.
The pair just happens to come ready-made, with enough decent luck assembled in one frame for almost anyone to come away with a half-decent picture. The size contrast between the man and the woman, their face-to-face gaze, their balanced location in the middle arch of the window, and their harmony with the overall verticality of the frame seem to say “mission accomplished”. I don’t need to know their agenda: they could be reciting lines of Gibrhan to each other or discussing mortgage rates: visually, it doesn’t matter. At the last instant, however, the seated woman, in shadow just right of them, presents some mystery. Is she extraneous, i.e., a spoiler, or does she provide a subplot? In short, story-wise, do I need her?
I decide that I do. Just as it’s uncertain what the couple is discussing, it’s impossible to know if she’s overhearing something intimate and juicy, or just sitting taking a rest. And I like leaving all those questions open, so, in the picture she stays. Thus, what you see here is exactly one out of one frame(s) taken for the hell of it. Nothing was changed in post-production except a conversion to monochrome. Turns out that even the possibility of budding romance can’t survive the distraction of Mrs. Gardner’s amazing legacy seen in full color, and the mystery woman is even more tantalizing in B&W. Easy call.
As we said at the beginning, working with my own formal rules of composition, I could easily have concluded that my picture would be “ruined” by my shadowy extra. And, I believe now, I would have been wrong. As photographers, we try to look out for our own good, but may actually know next to nothing about what that truly is.
And then the fun begins….
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU CAN’T BEGIN TO WRITE THE STORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY without acknowledging the role of the fortunate accident in the output of, well, everyone. Anyone who says he’s never been handed a rose from Lady Luck from time to time is either delusional or a dead-on liar. If we admit that chance occasionally turns our best plans to piddle, why not admit that we also randomly wind up in the winner’s circle on a free pass?
Here’s my freebie for probably the rest of this year, as I can’t see the triple crown of incidentals, accidentals and dumb luck converging as they did here anytime soon. Let’s look at the recipe in detail:
1: Accidentals. While walking along the edge of a footbridge alongside Tempe Town Lake in Arizona, I spooked a small flock of birds resting out of sight just beneath my feet. I heard them flee before I saw them head into open water.
2. Incidentals. For reasons I still can’t fathom, the birds did not take to the air, as you might expect, but escaped across the water, creating gorgeously trailing coils of ripples as they went. That slowed everything down enough that my startled synapses rebooted and started to shout, get your camera up to your eye. That led me to the one element that made the crucial difference, known to us all as:
3. Dumb Luck. After a lens change, I had walked almost a mile from my car when I realized that I had forgotten to slap on a polarizing filter, making shots across water in the sun of an Arizona midday almost guaranteed to saturated with glare. I had already improvised a crude hack my taking off my clip-on sunglasses and holding them in front of my lens. This had only intermittently worked, since I either left part of the field of view uncovered, or failed to hold the specs at the right angle, incurring wild variances in polarizing. As soon as my animal brain realized that I had one shot before my bird water ballet was out of reach, I had to frame, focus (I was already at f/8, so there was some help there), and get the sunglasses in position without deforming all that blue. Even at that, there’s quite a difference between the rendering of color in various parts of the frame.
What you see here, then, is the photo goddesses throwing me a bone. A big bone. We’re talking the rear haunch of a triceratops.
But, yeah, I’ll take it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CULTURAL ICONS, which burn very distinct patterns into our memory, can become the single most challenging subjects for photography. As templates for our key experiences, icons seem to insist upon being visualized in very narrow ways–the “official” or post card view, the version every shooter tries to emulate or mimic. By contrast, photography is all about rejecting the standard or the static. There must be, we insist, another way to try and see this thing beyond the obvious.
Upon its debut as the central symbol for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, the stainless steel structure known as the Unisphere was presented as the emblem of the peaceful ideals put forth by the Exhibition’s creators. Under the theme “Peace Through Understanding”, the Uni, 120 feet across and 140 feet in height, was cordoned off from foot traffic and encircled by jetting fountains,which were designed to camouflage the globe’s immense pedestal, creating the illusion that this ideal planet was, in effect, floating in space. Anchoring the Fair site at its center, the Unisphere became the big show’s default souvenir trademark, immortalized in hundreds of licensed products, dozens of press releases and gazillions of candid photographs. The message was clear: To visually “do” the fair, you had to snap the sphere.
After the curtain was rung down on the event and Flushing Meadows-Corona Park began a slow, sad slide toward decay, the Unisphere, coated with grime and buckling under the twin tyrannies of weather and time, nearly became the world’s most famous chunk of scrap metal. By 1995, however, the tide had turned; the globe was protected by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, and its rehabilitation was accompanied by a restoration of its encircling fountains, which were put back in service in 2010. The fair park, itself staging a comeback, welcomed back its space-age jewel.
As for photography: over the decades, 99% of the amateur images of the Unisphere have conformed to the photographic norm for icons: a certain aloof distance, a careful respect. Many pictures show the sphere alone, not even framed by the park trees that flank it on all sides, while many others are composed so that not one of the many daily visitors to the park can be seen, robbing this giant of the impact imparted by a true sense of scale.
In shooting Uni myself for the first time, I found it impossible not only to include the people around it, but to marvel at how completely they now possess it. The decorum of the ’64 fair as Prestigious Event now long gone, the sphere has been claimed for the very masses for whom it was built: as recreation site, as family gathering place..and, yes, as the biggest wading pool in New York.
This repurposing, for me, freed the Unisphere from the gilded cage of iconography and allowed me to see it as something completely new, no longer an abstraction of the people’s hopes, but as a real measure of their daily lives. Photographs are about where you go and also where you hope to go. And sometimes the only thing your eye has to phere is sphere itself.
SIGNS ARE PRIMARILY SOURCES OF INFORMATION AND IDENTIFICATION, a utilitarian way of learning who’s who and what’s where. In photography, their primary use can move beyond those roles to become commentary, context, atmosphere, even pure abstract subject matter. As shooters, we all use signs in ways that are not strictly literal but are 100% visual. They are powerful tools.
This is a circular way of saying that, in an image, a sign is never just a sign, but a way of indicating and qualifying place, time, mood. Be it a hand-scrawled “keep out” warning outside a busted farmhouse or a day-glo neon “open” greeting outside a pawn shop, a sign is valuable narrative shorthand. Of course, just like human storytellers, some signs are untrustworthy narrators, undermining what they seem to “say” with the things they imply within an image. Managing their messaging then becomes the responsibility of the photographer, who can use their content to reveal, conceal, or comment as needed.
The sign seen here, announcing the Museum Of The Moving Image in Astoria,Queens, has its letters mounted on a mirror-like surface, allowing the viewer to see evolving street life over his shoulder as he “reads” the characters. It’s both advertisement and illustration, a low-tech demo of the museum’s intent. Like all signs, it’s a prop, a piece of stage dressing, interpreted as narrowly or broadly as you need it to be.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHS BEGAN AS A SIMPLE HEAD–ON ENGAGEMENT. The viewpoint of the camera was essentially that of an audience member viewing a stage play, or reading a page of text, with all visual information reading from left to right. People stood in front of the lens in one flat plane, giving the appearance, as they posed before offices or stores, that they themselves were components in a two-dimensional painting. Everyone stared straight ahead as if in military formation or a class portrait, producing fairly stiff results.
We started photography by placing people in front of walls, then learned, like good stage managers, that selectively positioning or moving those walls could help image-makers manage the techniques of conceal/reveal. Now you see it, now you don’t. Photography no longer takes place in one plane: barriers shift to show this, or to hide that. They are part of the system of composition. Control of viewing angle does this most efficiently, as in the above image, where just standing in the right place lets me view both the front and back activities of the restaurant at the same time.
Of course, generations after the rigid formality of photography’s first framing so, we do this unconsciously. Adjusting where walls occur to help amplify our pictures’ narratives just seems instinctive. However, it can be helpful to pull back from these automatic processes from time to time, to understand why we use them, the better to keep honing our ability to direct the viewer’s eye and control the story.