By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU COULD ARGUE ALL DAY ABOUT WHETHER PUBLIC SPACES POSSESS MORE VISUAL POTENTIAL when they are full or when they are dead empty, and, depending on your photographic approach, both arguments would be correct. In other words, instead of a hard-and-fast truth, you have multiple truths, depending on which space is shot by which photographer under such-and-such circumstances. Hey, if ya want a vague premise, I’m your boy.
Plazas, train platforms, museums, places of worship, restaurants, sports arenas…..all the places where people convene in big mobs have all produced stunning images taken when said places contain no people at all. After hours, before opening, last call, snow days…there are endless reasons why people don’t go to places, and the unfilled space created by their absence is a separate kind of compositional challenge.
I have stated in previous posts on this forum that, for me, museums are tremendous sources of negative space, and yet positive possibilities,when devoid of crowds. Maybe it’s when people are about to be somewhere, when something is nearly ready to happen, that public places possess a certain, well, suspense. Whatever the phenomenon, I feel it, and will always squeeze off a few shots while the moment lasts.
Similarly, eateries are both potentially joyful and potentially lonely, and that kind of uncertainty excites me as a photographer. But you may be on the opposite side of the discussion. I can certainly understand that some would see a bunch of empty tables and chairs as depressing, unmistakably desolate. But I think it depends on the photograph, and I think it always will. There are many images of two people seated together at a cafe who are, sadly, miles apart due to their estrangement, and there are an equal number of pics of a hall just before celebrants from a wedding stream in. As with so much in photography, feeling comes both from what you did and didn’t show.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE’S NOTHING WORSE THAN COMING HOME FROM A SHOOT realizing that you only went halfway on things. Maybe there was another way to light her face. Did I take a wide enough bracket of exposures on that sunset? Maybe I should have framed the doorway two different ways, with and without the shadow.
And so on. Frequently, after cranking off a few lucky frames, we’re like kids walking home from confession, feeling fine and pure at first, and then remembering, “D’OH! I forgot to tell Father about the time I sassed my teacher!”
Too Catholic? (And downright boring on the sins, by the way..but, hey) Point is, there is always one more way to visualize nearly everything you care enough about to make a picture of. For one thing, we are always shooting either the cause or the effect of things. The great facial reaction and the surprise that induces it. The deep pool of rain and the portentous sky that sent it. The force that’s released in an explosion and the origin of that force. When we’re there, when the magic of whatever we came to see is happening, right here, right now, we need to think up, down, sideways for pictures of all of it, or as many as we can capture within our power….’cause once you’re home, safe and dry, it’s all different. The story perishes like a soap bubble. Shoot while you’re there. Shoot for all the story is worth.
It can be simple things. I saw the above image at one of the lesser outbuildings at Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s legendary teaching compound in Scottsdale, Arizona. An abstract pattern made from over-hanging strips of canvas,used as makeshift shade on a path. But when I reversed my angle and shot the sidewalk instead of the sky, I saw the effect of that cause, and it appealed to me too (see left). One composition favored color, while the other seemed to dictate black & white, but they both could serve my purpose in different ways. Click and click.
It bears remembering that the only picture that is guaranteed to be a failure is the one you didn’t take. Flip things around. Re-imagine the order, the role of things. Go for one more version of what’s “important”.
Hey, you’re there anyway.…..
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SEPARATING ONE’S IMAGES INTO “HIT” AND “MISS” PILES is always painful, since it’s kind of like telling some of your kids that they will be power hitters in Little League while their siblings should take up…well, macrame. But self-editing, over time, is nearly as important as shooting, and the mindfulness of asking “what was I thinking” is the useful corollary to “what do I want to do next?” That don’t make it smart any less, but at least you understand the pain.
Usually I hurl photos into the “miss” box for purely technical reasons, which means that I should have known what to do and just blew it upon execution. I’m more exacting nowadays, because present-era camera make it tougher to absolutely boot a shot, although I have striven to stay ahead of the curve and make lousy pictures even in the face of rapidly advancing technology. People who think they’ve idiot-proofed their gear have never met this idiot, I boast. It’s a point of pride.
Occasionally, though, you review a shot that was okay exposure-wise, but completely got the narrative wrong. Sometimes you can recompose the shot and redress this problem, and sometimes you’re just sealed out of the airlock with no oxygen. That’s the breaks. In the original image at the top of this page is a candid of a little girl next to a horse that I thought would be charming. Cute kid, nice horsie, you get the picture. Problem is, I never really captured her essence in any of the photos I shot (trust me) and I framed so tight that I was only showing the horse’s body. First verdict on this one: thanks for playing our game, sorry to see you go, here are some lovely parting gifts.
However, as a rainy day project, the photo suddenly presented a different way for me to go. It wasn’t that I had shown too little of the horse; it was that I had shown too much of both the horse and the child. The central part of the image, taken by itself, had a narrative power that the larger frame lacked. To crop so that just a part of the girl’s small arm connected with the strong, muscular torso of the horse magnified his power by contrasting it with her fragility. I wasn’t losing the horse’s face, since it hadn’t been in the original, and losing the girl’s face actually improved the impact of the image by reducing her to an abstraction, to a symbol of innocence, gentleness, but above all, contact. We could deduce that the horse and the girl were friends. We didn’t need to see it reflected in their features.
Sometimes an image we are ready to reject is hiding a more concentrated fragment that saves the entire thing, if we are unafraid to pare away what we once saw as “essential”. It’s the go-out-and-come-back-in-again school of thought. It’s at least a seeing exercise, and you gotta flex them eye and brain muscles at every opportunity.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE MOST AMAZING BY-PRODUCTS OF DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY, a trend still evolving across both amateur and professional ranks, is a kind of tidal return to black-and-white imaging. The sheer volume of processing choices, both in-and-out-of-camera, have made at least dabbling in monochrome all but inevitable for nearly everyone, reversing a global trend toward near exclusive use of color that was decades in the making. At one point, to be sure, we chose black and white out of necessity. Then we embraced color and relegated B&W to the dustbin of history. Now, we elect to use it again, and increasing numbers, simply because everything technical is within our reach, cheaply and easily.
Looking back, it’s amazing how long it took for color to take hold on a mass scale. Following decades of wildly uneven experimentation and dozens of processes from Victorian hand-tinting to the Autochromes of the early 1900’s, stable and affordable color film came to most of us by the end of the 1930’s. However, there was a reluctance, bearing on tantrum, among “serious” photographers to embrace it for several more decades. This article from the Life magazine Library of Photography, a history-tutorial series from the 1970’s, discusses what can only be called photography’s original anti-color bias:
Although publishers and advertisers enhanced their messages with pictures in color during the first few decades of the color era, most influential critics and museum curators persisted in regarding color photographs as “calendar art”. Color, they felt, was, at best, merely decorative, suitable, perhaps, for exotic or picturesque subjects, but a gaudy distraction in any work with “serious” artistic goals.
Of course, for years, color printing and processing was also unwieldy and expensive, scaring away even those few artists who wanted to take it on. Still, can you imagine, today, anyone holding the belief that any kind of processing was a “gaudy distraction” rather than just one more way to envision an image? Color was once seen by serious photographers as an element of the commercial world, therefore somehow..suspect. Fashion and celebrity photography had not yet been seen as legitimate members of the photo family, and their explosive use of color was almost thought of as a carnival effect. Cheap and vulgar.
Of course, once color became truly ubiquitous, sales of monochromatic film plummeted, and, for a time, black-and-white found itself on the bottom bunk, minimized as somehow less than color. In other words, we took the same blinkered blindness and just turned it on its head. Dumb times two.
Jump to today, where you can shoot, process and show images in nearly one continuous flow of energy. There are no daunting learning curves, no prohibitive expenses, no chemically charred fingertips to slow us down, or segregate one kind of photography from all others. What an amazing time to be jumping into this vast ocean of possibilities, when images get a second life, upon second thought.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S TV-DOCTOR SHOW CLICHE NUMBER ONE. The frantic ER crew valiantly works upon a patient who is coding, pulling out every tool in a desperate search for a discernible pulse. Then the close-up on the earnest nurse: “He’s gone.” and the final pronouncement by the exhausted resident: “Okay, anyone have the time? I’m calling it….”
That’s pretty much what it’s like to try to rescue a lousy photograph by extraordinary means…tweaking, sweetening, processing, whatever you call the ultimately futile emergency measures. Sometime the unthinkable is obvious: the picture’s a goner…no pulse, no soul, no life.
Cue Bones McCoy: It’s dead, Jim.
I have made my share of ill-advised interventions in the name of “saving” photos that I was unwilling to admit were lifeless, pointless, just a plain waste of time. You’ve done it too, I’m sure. Trying to give some kind of artistic mouth-to-mouth to an image that just wasn’t a contender to begin with. It was a bunch of recorded light patterns, okay, but it damn sure wasn’t a photograph. Smear as much lipstick on a pig as you want….it’s still a pig.
The above image shows the worst of this pathology. I wanted to show the charm of an old bed-and-breakfast in the gloriously beautiful little town of Pacific Grove, located just up the peninsula from Monterey in California (see image at left). But everything that could have made the image memorable, or even usable, was absent. The color, a cool buttercup yellow, is common to many town dwellings. In the warm glow of dawn or the late waning, dappled light of late afternoon, it can be charming, even warm. In the mid-day light, weak, withered. Then there was the total lack of a composition. The picture was taken in a second, and looked it.
So, angry at having failed at the “charming” look I had gone for, and unable to make the backlighting on the house work for me, I went into Photomatix (usually a very solid HDR tool) and started, almost angrily, to take revenge on the damned thing. If I can’t make you pretty, I’ll make you magnificently ugly, hahaha…. Seriously, I was pretty far into the journey from “happy little house” to “creepy little twilight creep castle” before realizing there was nothing to be extracted from this picture. No amount of over-glop, taffy-pulling or prayer would magically compensate for a central core concept that just wasn’t there. Like it or not, the pig was always going to show through the lipstick.
Sometimes you just gotta declare the unlucky patient in front of you dead, and try to save the kid on the next gurney over.
This blog was always supposed to be about choices, both good and bad, and how we learn from each. I have shared my failures before, and firmly believe that the only honest conversation comes from admitting that sometimes we make colossal errors in judgement, and that a fair examination of even our “misses” is more important than an endless parade of our “hits”.
Photography is not about consistent genius. It’s about extracting something vital from something flawed.
Being able to identify when we have fallen short is the most important skill, the most essential tool.