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.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I CALL IT NO–FUNDAY, the painful exercise of poring over photographs that I once considered “keepers” and now must reluctantly re-classify as “obviously, I’m an idiot.” For any photographer, self-editing one’s output is just the kind of humiliation one needs to keep on shooting, if only to put greater distance between one’s self and one’s yester-duds.
To make the shame of disowning my photographic spawn even worse, I find that, more often than not, technical failure is usually not the reason I’m lunging for the delete button: it’s the weakness of the conception, a basic lifelessness or lack of impact that far outweighs any errors in exposure, lighting, even composition. In other words, my worst pictures are, by and large, bad because they are well-executed renditions of measly ideas.
In my mental filing cabinet, I refer to these images under the acronym SLIGIATT, or Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time. The image above is a perfect example. This shot, taken inside the underbelly of a WWII bomber, presented a ton of lighting challenges, but I spent so much time tweaking this aspect of it that I neglected to notice that there just isn’t a picture here. It tells no story. It explains nothing. It’s just an incomprehensible jumble of old equipment which lets the eye wander all over the frame, only to land on…..well, what exactly? But, boy howdy, it is well-lit.
SLIGIATT photos are, of course, necessary. You have to take all the wrong pictures to teach yourself how to create the good ones. And mere technical prowess can, for a time, resemble quality of a sort. But technique is merely craft, and can be had rather easily. The art part comes in when you’re lucky enough to also build a soul into a machine. As Frankenstein figured out, that’s the difference between being God and playing God.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE MOST REVOLUTIONARY ACTS a photographer can commit is the thwarting of expectation, a deliberate subverting of what the viewer assumes will happen next. Composition-wise, this means not just deciding what information makes it into the frame, but, indeed, whether there will even be a frame at all.
Any demarcation or line within an image can be used to direct attention to a given location. Whether including or excluding, pointing toward or pointing away from, the photographer has pretty much limited authority on how he’ll direct traffic within a composition. And so we shoot through holes, slats, panes, and skylights. We observe borders marked by cast shadows: we cut spaces in half to make two rooms out of one: we reveal facts in parts of reflections while obscuring the objects they reflect.
In the above image, I saw the subdivisions of the department store display unit like a wall of little tv’s, each screen showing its own distinct mini-drama. Is the woman seen eyeing the merchandise the most prominent “screen star”, or are we just seeing an arbitrary mosaic of the larger scene behind the display? Or is it both?
Framing within the larger frame of a composition can isolate and boost whatever message we’ve chosen to convey, and it’s perhaps the most total control a photographer can wield, more so in its way than even exposure or lighting.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
A BREAK IN THE ACTION: a word from our sponsor: a coda before the chorus. Intrusions into the predictable rhythms of things can be either annoying or refreshing, depending on how we perceive them.
The right intervals between dots and dashes can drastically change the meaning of a telegram. A well-placed silence between musical notes can generate just the tension required to transform a composition into a masterpiece. And a sudden interruption in visual patterns can add impact to a photograph.
Once the eye detects, as they say on Sesame Street, that one of the things in a picture is not like the others, it pauses, re-evaluating every element in the scene, weighing it for relative value. Breaking an image’s pattern is either an unwelcome invasion or a kind of visual punctuation….again, varying as to the effect. The object violating the uniformity says pause, wait, re–consider, and begins a new conversation about what we’re seeing and what we think about it.
In the above picture, a human silhouette against the massive ceiling grid provides the basic context of scale, and defines the locale (a library) as a space where human activity takes place. The figure thus says how big the place is and what it is for, along with any other ancillary associations touched off in the viewer’s mind. Would the picture “work” without the figure? Certainly. The terms of engagement would just be different, that’s all.
Photographs are not merely pictures of things. They are also sets of instructions (suggestions?) on what to do with all that information. Think of them like roadside signs. It’s indeed helpful to be told, for example, that Sacramento is just another 100 miles away. But it’s just as important to have a big bright arrow telling you to head that–away.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
OUR VERY HUMAN DESIRE TO MAKE OUR PHOTOGRAPHY TECHNICALLY FLAWLESS can be observed in the results you can glean from a simple Google search of the words “perfect” and “photos”. Hundreds of tutorials and how-tos pop up on how to get “the perfect portrait”, “the perfect family picture”, “the perfect sunset”, and of course, “the perfect wedding shot”. The message is all too clear; when it comes to making pictures, we desperately want to get it right. But how to get it right…that’s a completely different discussion.
Because if, by “perfect”, we means a seamless blend of accurate exposure, the ideal aperture, and the dream composition, then I think we are barking up a whole forest of wrong trees. Mere technical prowess in photography can certainly be taught, but does obeying all these rules result in a “perfect” picture?
If you stipulate that you can produce a shot that is both precise in technique and soulless and empty, then we should probably find a more reasonable understanding of perfection. Perfect is, to me, a word that should describe the emotional impact of the result, not the capital “S” science that went into its execution. That is, some images are so powerful that we forget to notice their technical shortcomings. And that brings us to the second part of this exercise.
Can a flawed image move us, rouse us to anger, turn us on, help us see and feel? Absolutely, and they do all the time. We may talk perfection, but we are deeply impressed with honesty. Of course, in two hundred years, we still haven’t shaken the mistaken notion that a photograph is “reality”. It is not, and never was, even though it has an optical resemblance to it. It became apparent pretty early in the game that photographs could not only record, but persuade, and, yes, lie. So whatever you shoot, no matter how great you are at setting your settings, is an abstraction. That means it’s already less than perfect, even before you add your own flaws and faults. So the game is already lost. Or, depending on our viewpoint, a lot more interesting.
Go for impact over perfect every time. You can control how much emotional wallop is packed into your pictures just as surely as you can master the technical stuff, and pictures that truly connect on a deep level will kick the keester of a flawless picture every single time. The perfect picture is the one that brings back what you sent it to do. The camera can’t breathe life into a static image. Only a photographer can do that.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
VISITOR ATTRACTIONS CREATE THEIR OWN KIND OF PECULIAR GRAVITY, in that many of them develop an “official” way to take in their delights, pulling you toward what they believe to be the center of things. From the creation of tourist maps to the arrangement of signs on paths, many famous “places to see” evolve systems for how to “do” parks, recreation areas, even ancient ruins. Some hot spots have even been so obvious as to mount signage right next to the “Kodak moment” view that, of course, you will want to to snap, since everybody does. And from here, folks, you can clearly see the royal castle, the original temple, the stunning mountain vista, etc., etc.
But predictability, or an approved way of seeing a particular thing, is the death of spontaneity, and certainly a danger signal for any kind of creativity. Photography is the visual measure of our subjective experience. It’s supposed to be biased toward our individual way of taking a thing in. Grading our reactions to visual stimuli on the curve, taking us all down the same path of recommended enjoyment, actually obviates the need for a camera. Just freeze the “correct” view on the gift store’s postcard assortment, and, presto, we can all have the same level of enjoyment. Or the same low point of banality.
Recently I visited the amazing Butchart Gardens, a botanical bonanza on the island of Victoria in British Columbia. If ever there was a place where you’d be tempted to tick off “the sights” on a mental checklist, this cornucopia of topiary choreography is it, and you will find it truly tempting not to attempt your “take” on its most photographed features. But an experience is not a triptych, and I found my favorite moments were near the fringes or niches of the property, many of which are as stunning as the most traveled wonders along the approved paths.
To my great surprise, my favorite shot from the tour wasn’t one of the major sites or even a color image, but a quick glimpse of a young girl hesitating in the narrow, arched portal that separated one side of an enormous hedge from the other. She only hesitated for a few seconds before walking into the more traveled courtyard just adjacent, which is, itself, recorded thousands of times a day. But that brief pause was enough. She had become, to me, Alice, dawdling on the edge of a new Wonderland. The arch became all mystery to me, but the picture needed to be simplified to amplify that feeling, relegating the bright hues to secondary status. And while it indeed seems counterintuitive to take a black and white image in the midst of one of the world’s great explosions of color, I gladly chose the mono version once I had the chance to compare it to the original. Some things just work.
One thing that never works is trying to make your personal photographs conform with what the designer of a public place has recommended as the essential features of that place. Your camera is just that….your camera. Shoot with someone else’s eye, and you might as well just frame the brochure.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN EARLIER OUTINGS, WE HAVE DISCUSSED THE VALUE of knowing how sunlight enters your house at all times of the day. Knowing where bright spots and slatted beams hit the interior of your home in different hours gives you a complete map of “sweet spots” where natural light will temporarily isolate and flatter certain objects, giving you at least several optimized minutes for prime shooting each day.
Keeping this little time-table in your head allows you to move your subjects to those places in the house where, say, the daily 10 a.m. sun shaft through the family room window will give you a predictably golden glow. For me, that location is my living room window, across which the southwestern sun tracks east/west, and the object is my white baby grand piano.
Pianos, to me, are divinely complex gadgets, creations of the first great industrial age, their impossibly intricate mechanics offering thousands of possibilities for macro shots, fisheye explosions, abstract compositions, shadow studies, and delicate ballets of reflections as the morning sun dances across harp, strings, and hammers in an endless kaleidoscope of radiance. I have long since tracked how the sun showcases different parts of the piano as the day progresses, and how that corresponds to the instrument’s various sections and subsections.
Hard-wiring that schedule into my skull over the years means I know when a shot will work and when it won’t, making the object more than just something to shoot. It becomes, in effect, an active kind of photo laboratory, a way of teaching and re-teaching myself about the limits of both light and my own abilities. Better still, the innate intricacy of the piano as an object guarantees that I can never really get “done” with the project, or that something that was a mystery in January will become a revelation by June.
What gives this process a special lure to me is my endless effort to exploit natural light to the full, believing, as I do, that nearly every other less organic form of illumination is measurably poorer and less satisfactory than that which comes plentifully, and for free. The house I live in has thus become, over the years, a kind of greenhouse for the management of light, an active farm for harvesting the sun.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I’M INCREASINGLY FASCINATED BY PHOTOGRAPHS THAT SUPPRESS INFORMATION, choosing to selectively conceal details rather than merely delineate everything in the frame in the same exhaustively sharp detail. At the same time, I hate it when this technique is referred to as being “painterly”, as if, after all this time, photos are still striving for the same pedigree that daubers automatically inherit merely by picking up a brush. Photographs are not, and should not try to be, paintings, just as a shoe should not try to pass as a glove. Love the function of the art you have, and leave the mimicry to the mockingbirds.
The “painterly” tag used to be tied mainly to anyone shrouding their images in shadow, as if we were all bucking to be the next Rembrandt or Reubens. And certainly the use of darkness in photography creates a kind of mysterious minimalism, telling more by showing less. We linger over what’s left out of a photo, and the deliberate subtraction of detail simplifies a composition to its barest terms. When there is less to see, you eye goes like a laser to what remains. It’s a big, bright “this way, dummy” arrow pointing toward the heart of the picture.
In the same way, the current wave of photographers are using blur to punch up the impact of images. Any Google search of the phrase “blur my photos” unearths a wellspring of apps that allow any part of any frame to be selectively de-focused, in most cases (as happens with apps) after the picture is taken. Long regarded as the stuff of artifact or accident, blur is now being arranged, managed, and chosen as a tool to remove distracting detail from compositions, or to render them softer and more intimate. In the above image, separate elements of the structure, all of which lie generally in the same focal plane, can be selectively softened so that one can become dominant, while the other is abstracted. This particular shot is done with a Lensbaby Sweet 35 lens, which allows the “sweet spot” of focus to be rotated to any location the shooter desires, although there are many paths to similar results.
Both apps and lenses, which include newly reworked versions of old optics, offer a return to the randomness from which early photographers longed to escape. Lomography, the revival of flawed and cheap cameras from the film era, actually touts blur as a strength, an arty accent much to be desired. To be totally counter-intuitive about it, blur is edgy. Of course, some blur is just another kind of visual noise, and if it’s applied too carelessly or too much, it actually pulls the eye away from the main message of a picture. However, it’s thrilling just to see the sheer breadth of approaches that are suddenly available everywhere, most of them cheap, fast and easy. Blur can “sharpen” a picture just like darkness can “illuminate” one. It’s the new shadow.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE ARE CERTAINLY MANY MORE PICTURES BEING TAKEN than there are great pictures taken. That’s as it should be. Anything at which you wish to be excellent only comes about once you’ve learned what not to do, and that means lots of errors, lots of images that you feel compelled to destroy almost as quickly as you’ve created them. You must, must, must, take all the bad pictures right alongside the good ones. At first, the garbage will outnumber the groceries.
And then, some day, it doesn’t.
I am an A.B.S. (Always Be Shooting) shooter. I mean, I make myself at least try to make a picture every….single…day. No excuses, no regrets, no exceptions. Reason? I simply don’t know (and neither do you) where the good pictures are going to come from. For me to give myself permission not to try on a given day means I am risking that one of those potentially golden pictures will never be born. Period period period.
In a way, I often think photo technique guides from years gone by had things backwards. That is, they often made suggestions of great opportunities to take great pictures. You know the list: at a party: on a vacation: to capture special moments with loved ones, etc., etc. However, none of these traditional “how-to” books included a category called “just for the hell of it”, “why not?”, or, in the digital era, “whattya got to lose? You’re shooting for free!” These days, there are virtually no barriers to making as many pictures as you want, quickly, and with more options for control and creativity, both before and after the shutter click. So that old “ideas” list needs to be re-thought.
To my thinking, here’s the one (yes, I said ONE) suggestion for making pictures, the only one that matters:
TAKE THE SHOT ANYWAY.
And to purify your thinking, here’s my larger list, that of the most commonly used excuses not to shoot. You know ’em. You’ve used ’em. And by doing so, you’ve likely blown the chance at a great picture. Or not. You won’t know, because you didn’t TAKE THE SHOT ANYWAY. Here are the excuses, in all their shameful glory:
I haven’t got the right lens/camera/gear. There’s not enough light. I don’t do these kinds of pictures well. I don’t have my “real” camera. There’s nothing to take a picture “of”. Everyone takes a picture of this. I’ll do it later. It probably won’t be any good. There are too many people in the picture. There isn’t enough time.
Train yourself to repeat take the shot anyway, like a mantra, whenever any of these alibis spring into your head. Speed up your learning curve. Court the uncertain. Roll the dice. Harvest order from chaos. Stop waiting for your shot, your perfect day, your ideal opportunity.
Take the shot. Anyway.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ASKED IN 1974 BY AN INTERVIEWER ABOUT THE LEGACY OF THE ACTOR JAMES CAGNEY, director Orson Welles replied that while Jimmy “broke every rule”, “there’s not a fake moment” in any of his movies. He further explained that the star of Public Enemy, White Heat and Yankee Doodle Dandy worked counter to all the conventions of what was supposed to be “realism”, and yet created roles which were absolutely authentic. Cagney, in effect, bypassed the real and told the truth.
As do many photographers, it turns out.
We all have inherited a series of technical skills which were evolved in an attempt to capture the real world faithfully inside a box, and we still fail, at times, to realize that what makes in image genuine to the viewer must often be achieved by ignoring what is “real”. Like Cagney, we break the rules, and, if we are lucky, we make the argument that what we’ve presented ought to be considered the truth, even though the viewer must ignore what he knows in order to believe that. Even when we are not trying to create a so-called special effect, that is, a deliberate trick designed to conspicuously wow the audience, we are pulling off little cheats to make it seem that we played absolutely fair.
The first time we experiment with lighting, we dabble in this trickery, since the idea of lighting an object is to make a good-looking picture, rather than to mimic what happens in natural light. If we are crafty about it, the lie we have put forth seems like it ought to be the truth, and we are praised for how “realistic” a shot appears. The eye likes the look we created, whether it bears any resemblance to the real world or not, just as we applaud a young actor made up to look like an old man, even though we “know” he isn’t typically bald, wrinkled, and bent over a cane.
In the image above, you see a simple example of this. The antique Kodak really does have its back to a sunlit window, and the shadows etched along its body really do come from the slatted shutters upon that window. However, the decorative front of the camera, which would be fun to see, is facing away from the light source. That means that, in reality, it would not glow gold as seen in the final image. And, since reality alone will not give us that radiance, a second light source has to be added from the front.
In this case, it’s the most primitive source available: my left hand, which is ever so slightly visible at the lower left edge of the shot. It’s acting as a crude reflector of the sunlight at right, but is also adding some warmer color as the flesh tones of my skin tint the light with a little gold on its way back to the front of the camera. Result: an unrealistic, yet realistic-seeming shot.
There’s a number of names for this kind of technique: fakery, jiggery-pokery, flimflam, manipulation, etc., etc.
And some simply call it photography.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
LOTS OF OUR BEST PHOTOGRAPHS ARE, EXCUSE THE EXPRESSION, snap judgements. Sometimes a composition simply seems to come fully formed, ready to jump intact into the camera, with no reasonable way to improve on a shot that is 99% pure impulse. Some of these gift moments are so seductive that we may not think to keep shooting beyond what we’ve perceived as the ideal moment. But more shooting may be just what we need.
Images that involve very fast-moving events may only have one key instant where the real storytelling power of the shot comes to a climax, with everything after seen as progressively less dramatic. The second after a baseball is hit: the relaxed smile after the birthday candles are blown out. Think, if you will, of a straight news or journalism image. Every second after the Hindenburg explodes is less and less intense.
But many images can be re-imagined second-by-second, with additional takes offering the photographer vastly different outcomes and choices. In the series shown here, I originally fell in love with the look of sunset on a wooded trail. My first instinct was that the receding path was everything I needed, and I shot the first frame not thinking there would even be a second. My wife, however, decided to walk into the space unexpectedly, and I decided to click additional frames every few seconds as she walked toward the shot’s horizon. She starts off in the lower right corner and walks gently left as she climbs the slight rise in the path, causing her hair to catch a sun flare in the second shot, and placing her in central importance in the composition. By the last shot, however, she is a complete silhouette at the top of the frame, taking her far enough “up” to restore the path to its original prominence with her as a mere accent.
Which shot to take? Anyone’s call, but the point here is that, by continuing to shoot, I had four images to choose from, all with very individualized dynamics, none of which would have been available to me if I’d just decided that my first shot was my best and settled. There will be times when the fullest storytelling power of a photograph is all present right there in your first instinctive snap. When you have time, however, learning to compose on the run can force you to keep re-visualizing your way to lots of other possibilities.