SPLITTING THE INSTANT
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.
THE COMPOUND ILLUSION
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ASK THE AVERAGE PERSON FOR A BRIEF COMPARISON BETWEEN PHOTOGRAPHY AND PAINTING, and you may hear the assertion that, ‘well, photographs are real..”, a statement that reveals the fundamental flaw in our thinking about photographs from their earliest beginnings. Simply because a camera measures and records light (perhaps also because it’s a machine), we’ve come to regard its end product as a literal representation of the world. But no serious examination of what artists have done with the photographic image will support that idea. Photographs are no more real than daubs of pigment, and no more reliable in their testimony.
Photographers twist and torture light and shadow to present their version of the world, not its literal translation. If they worked with top hats and wands instead of Leicas, their audiences would accept, with a wink. that a live rabbit was not actually produced out of the hat’s crown, but was, in fact, a feat of misdirection, of persuasion. The camera, on the other hand, gets far more credit for being faithful to the real world than it deserves. As the old saying goes, a photograph is a lie that tells the truth.
Making any kind of image, the photographer has any number of simple techniques available to him to make the inaccurate seem real, most of it achieved in-camera. Take, for example, the attempt, in the above photo, to create as great a sense of depth as is possible in a flat image. First, the use of a wide 24mm lens will optically exaggerate the distance between the front and back of the scene, nearly doubling the sense of space versus that of the actual room. On top of that, the image is composed with the most severe diagonal possible to pull the eye into its already over-accented dimensions.
As a final touch, the shot is taken at the smallest aperture practicable in the available light, insuring uniform sharpness as the eye looks “into” the scene. The result is a three-decker compound illusion……fairly removed from “reality” and yet suggesting itself to it, much as the rabbit seems to have emerged from the hat. Indeed, with the creative manipulation of the photographic process, you might not need, in terms of reality, either the hat or the rabbit to perform your “trick”. But you can certainly show them both in the shot.
A THING OF THE MOMENT
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CAN YOU TRAIN YOUR EYE TO SEE FASTER? Now, by “seeing”, I mean a process which effectively goes beyond the mere reception of light or visual information, something unique to the process of photography. I’m asking if you can, in effect, train the eye to, if not actually see faster, to more efficiently communicate with the brain and the hand in selecting what is important, so more rapidly apprehend the fleeting moment when a picture must be made.
I’m talking about the gradually learned trick of deciding quicker what you want and when it might be near at hand.
Much has been written about Henri Cartier-Bresson’s idea of “the decisive moment”, the golden instant in which viewpoint, conditions, and subject converge to be especially eloquent….to be, in effect, the only true artistic moment at which a photograph can be taken. Many reject this idea out of hand, saying that there are many potential great opportunities in the space of even a few seconds, and that the lucky among us grab at least one now and then. For those people, it’s not so much “the” moment as “a” moment.
Whatever the nature of the near-perfect shot is, sensing when one is imminent isn’t magic, and it isn’t accidental. It’s also not guaranteed by talent or luck. It has to be the result of experience, more specifically, lots of unsatisfying experience. Because I feel that the pictures you didn’t get are far more instructive than the ones you did, simply because you burn more brain cells on the mysteries of what went wrong than you do on the miracle of getting things right.
This image is neither the result of great advance planning nor of great fortune: it’s somewhere in the middle, but it does record an instant when everything that can work is working. The light, the contrasting tones of white and gray, the framing, the incidental element of the passing tourist….they were all registering in my mind at the precise instant before I snapped the frame.
This does not mean I was totally in charge of the process: far from it. But I knew that something was arriving, something that would be gone in less than a second. Also, the elements that were converging to make the image were also in flux, and, having moved on, would result in something very different if I were to take a second or third crack at the same material.
For a photographer, it’s a little like surfing. You take lots of waves, with the idea that any of them can deliver the ride of your life. But, on any given day, all of them could be duds. However (and this is the part about a trained eye), you can learn to spot the best waves faster and faster, converting more of them to great rides. And making pictures is much the same process. You can’t absolutely analyze what will make a picture work, but you can learn to spot potential quicker, on some level between intentional and accidental.
THE EVENTUALITY OF ABOUT
“Something’s going to happen. Something….wonderful!” —Astronaut David Bowman, “2010: The Year We Make Contact”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY’S FIRST FUNCTION WAS AS A RECORDING MEDIUM, as a way to arrest time in its flight, to freeze select seconds of it. As evidence. As reference points. We were here. This happened. Soon, however, the natural expansion that art demands generated images of the things that happened before our direct experience. Ruins. Monuments. Cathedrals. Finally, the photograph began to speculate forwards. To anticipate, even guess, about what might be about to happen. That is the photography of the potential, the imminent. It’s rather ghostly. Indefinite. And all in the eyes of the creator and the beholder.
Is something about to happen? Does this place, this kind of light, truly portend something? Can a picture said to be ripe with the possibility of emerging events? I think they can, but these bits of pre-history are harder to sense than those we capture in the mere recording or retrieval functions of photography. In this case, we are not just witnesses or detectives, but seers. Of course, we may be wrong. Something may not happen as we seem to see it at present. History may not be made here. Perhaps no one will ever say or do anything extraordinary on this spot. The image of the possibility, then, becomes a kind of creative fiction, a pictorial what-if. And that places photos in the same arena as sci-fi, mysticism, poetry. If other arts can paint worlds that might be, why can’t a picture?
I don’t know why the meeting room shown here, which was being prepared for a conference later in the day, struck me. It might have been the somber color scheme, or the subdued light. It may have been the grand emptiness of it all; a room designed to be packed with people, sitting there, waiting for them to animate it. I just know that it was enough to slow my trek through a resort hotel long enough to try to show that potential. For what? A moment of high corporate drama? The end of someone’s career, the launch pad for a bold new idea? The meeting that might redraw the map of human destiny? Or nothing?
Ah, but what actually happens after the photo is taken is mere reality, and never to be matched or compared with the strong sense of eventuality that can linger in an atmosphere before something occurs. These kind of images are not, after all, witnesses to anything, but visions of the possible. And that is the essence of photography, where even a medium invented to record reality can ofttimes transcend it.
LAYERS OF LEARNING
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS A YOUNG PIANO STUDENT, I NOTICED THAT MANY OF MY FAVORITE SHORT WORKS all bore the elegant, mysterious name of etude. It was somewhat later that I realized that this was merely the French word for a “study”, and that some of what I regarded as highly developed, final compositions were, essentially, first versions, practice runs by the masters in search of some eventual greatness. And, since I was an illustrator as well as a musician, the idea of an etude as a prototype, a first version of something dovetailed nicely with the idea of a sketch, or as my father called it, a “rough”. An etude was a work in progress.
Then came photography and, with it, the giddy short-term gratification of just snapping a picture, of crossing a visual item off one’s to-do list. We are, as humans naturally attracted to the process of completion, of turning out a finished product. Click. Done. Moving on….However, despite what the auction houses and gallery curators of the world might try to tell you, art is not a product, and just like those melodiously wondrous etudes, the best images are always in the process of being created. You can always take a picture to another level, but you can’t finish it.
Walk across to the painters’ side of the Art building every once in a while and look at how many preliminary studies Leonardo or Michelangelo made of their greatest works, or the number of “early” and “late” versions there are of these same masterpieces. Now, travel back to the photography wing and witness Ansel Adams taking one crack after another at the same stony face of El Capitan, often merely reworking the same master negative up to a half dozen times over decades. You simply have to make different pictures of the same subjects across a lifetime, just because your idea of what’s important to show keeps evolving.
Finally, look objectively at your own output and discover how many of your older images are “good pictures” and how many are good ideas for pictures. You’ll no doubt find your own personal “etudes”, the studies that can still become something better. In my own case, I have to walk away from floral subjects from time to time, then return to approach them with a different mindset, since I’m equally fascinated and clueless as to how to imbue them with anything approaching soulfulness. My eye struggles to make something magical emerge from buds and bouquets as others have done. But I’ll stay at it.
Digital processes make it possible to crank through a wide variety of approaches to the same subject in a very short span of time compared to film-based techniques. Think easy-fast-cheap. Or think good-better-best if you like. Either way, the layers of learning are stacked ever higher and deeper, allowing us to regard photography as process instead of product. So do your scales every day, keep your fingers high and curved, and stay curious.
RUN WHAT YA BRUNG
By MICHAEL PERKINS
NORMALEYE PHOTOGRAPHIC PARADOX No.346: You have to think hard about your equipment when you’re not shooting so that you don’t have to give much thought when you are.
Reacting “in the moment” to a photographic situation is often lauded as the highest state of human existence, and, indeed, the ability to see, and do, on the spot, can yield amazing results. But, in that marvelous inspirational instant, the smallest item on your checklist should be dithering about your gear. What it will do. What it can’t do. What you don’t know how to make it do. These are ruminations you run through when there’s no picture making going on.
Simply, the more you know about what you’ve taken to a shoot, the less creative energy will be drained off worrying about how to use it once you get there. You will get to the point where, for a given day’s subject matter, you take the wide lens, of course, or the macro lens, of course, or the portrait lens, of course. You’ll anticipate the majority of situations you’ll be in, and, unless you like driving yourself crazy, you’ll likely select one lens that will just about do it all. But whatever lens you select, you will want to know how much farther you can push it, as well. You know what you generally need it to do, but can it, in a tight spot, do a decent job outside its specialty? The answer is, probably yes.
One of my favorite lenses for landscape work is my ancient Nikkor 24mm f/2.8 prime. Nice and wide for most outdoors subjects, pretty fast for the close and dark stuff, and sharp as cheddar cheese in my most used apertures, especially the middle range, like around f/5.6. Can it do macro work, when I swing my attention from distant mountains to detail on a nearby cactus? Well, yes, within reason.
The minimum near-focus distance for this lens is about ten inches, more than close enough to fill a frame with the trunk of the saguaro with a little spare space to the right and left. I shoot in big files, so even with a post-op crop I preserve lots of resolution, and bang, the wide-angle does a respectable job as a faux macro.
I grew up around amateur race arenas which invited people to haul any old hunk of automotive junk to the track, to be run in so-called “run what ya brung” events. I personally hate to haul my entire optical array out on a project, swapping out glass for every new situation. I’d much rather save my neck and shoulder by calculating ahead of time which lens will do most of what I want, but be able to stand-in for some other lens in special situations. There are usually work-arounds and hidden tricks in even the most limited lenses. You just have to seek them out.
Run what ya brung.
IMPRECISE BUT TRUE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AN ELOQUENTLY DETAILED ANALYSIS OF A POWERFUL PHOTOGRAPH, which I read in a recent edition of the New York Times, convinced me anew that, apart from a few compositional basics, no one really knows what makes an image “work”. Beginners love to sing the praises of the Rule Of Thirds as a guideline for composition, and, likewise, critics rhapsodize about Golden Ratios as a way to dissect how powerful elements occupy space in great photos. But the dirty little secret about composition is that there is no dirty little secret, no Laws of Gravity or Relativity that, if consistently obeyed, will yield consistent excellence.
This doesn’t mean that we can’t emotionally identify which pictures have power, as well as those that merely lie there. It merely means that there may never be adequate verbal artillery to reduce those feelings to a law, a handbook, or a credo. We arrive with our cameras at places where there may, or may not be, a picture. Our eye tells us that something important can be extracted, isolated, amplified, re-contextualized. Beyond that, it’s a matter of fate and luck.
Of course, the more we experience what works, the better we are at seeing it in the raw and extracting better and better examples of it. However, every ride of the bucking bronco is distinctly different from all the others. Photography has certain mechanical techniques that can be mastered, certainly, but we can’t learn emotional impact in a class. We can only pour something out into the camera from what is already inside us.
Try to imagine walking up to a chalkboard and reducing your favorite photograph to a series of shorthand symbols reminiscent of a mathematician’s equation. Could anything be more bloodless, more clinical? Critics and analysts sometimes come from the ranks of doers, but many of the very best doers resist the temptation to dissect their art as if it were a lab frog. Henri Cartier-Bresson, the acknowledged Moses of street photography, once recalled that it was seeing another shooter’s best work that made him say, “Damn It!”, grab his camera, and head outside, obsessed with making something of his own that could incite such a reaction.
Photographers seize instinct and emotion in the raw and forge them into a kind of sense-fired steel. Frame a picture with that steel and it will speak a thousand times louder than any mere dissertation.
POST #500: ON THE ROAD TO CHERRY GARCIA
By MICHAEL PERKINS
VISITORS TO THE FACTORY HEADQUARTERS OF BEN & JERRY’S ICE CREAM in Stowe, Vermont, upon completing the standard tour of the works, are encouraged to climb a small hill out back of the building to view the company’s Dead Flavor’s Graveyard, an actual cemetery, complete with elegantly epitaphed tombstones and dedicated to such failed B&J varietals as Turtle Soup, Fossil Fuel, White Russian and Sweet Potato Pie. It’s a humorous way to point out that, even for talented startups, there’s no such thing as a direct shot up the mountain of fame. We duck. We detour. We change direction. It’s a process, not a product.
Photography is, in this way (and in no other way that I can think of) much like ice cream.
As we clear the 500 mark on posts for The Normal Eye, I want to (a) profoundly thank all those who have joined us on the journey, and (b) restate that, as our sub-head reads, it really is about a journey, rather than a destination. This small-town newspaper began because I had met so many people over the years who had become suspicious of their camera’s true intentions. Sure, they admitted, the automodes do pretty great on many pictures, but what if I actually want some say in the process? Can I be an active agent in the making of my own pictures?
Now, these weren’t people who wanted to purchase $10,000 worth of gear, sell their houses, abandon their children, and become photo gypsies for NatGeo. These were simply people whose photographic curiosity had finally got the better of them. What would happen, they asked, if I were to, all by myself, make one little extra choice, independent of the camera’s superbrain, before the shutter snapped? And what if I made two? Or three? Other questions followed. What is seeing? How do you learn to value your own vision? And what tasks from the era of film still apply as solid principles in the digital age?
The Normal Eye has spent the last four years trying to ask those questions, not from a top-down, “here is how to do it” approach, since so many of these solutions must be privately arrived at. This is not, and will never be, a technical tutorial. I reflect on what thoughts went into a particular problem, and how I personally decided to try to solve it. The results, as are all my words, are up for debate.
It’s humbling to remember that, in photography, there is always more than one path to paradise. And when I find myself being crushed under the weight of my own Dead Flavor Graveyard, I take heart in those moments when your feedback has made a difference in my motivations, or methods, or both. Recently, I received what I still cherish as one of the best comments over the entire run, with one gentleman proclaiming:
I’m not a fan of words, but the ones in this article are in a tolerable sequence.
Hey, that’s enough to hold me for another 500, and I hope you’ll be along for the ride.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE LUXURY THAT PAINTERS HISTORICALLY ENJOYED OVER PHOTOGRAPHERS was the pure prolonged incubation time between their conception of a thing and its realization on the canvas. Whatever else painting is, it is never an instantaneous process, something that is especially true for portraits. The daubing of strokes, mixing of paint, the waiting for the light, and the waiting for the model to arrive (take a bathroom break, eat dinner, etc.) all contribute to painting’s bias toward the long game. The process cannot be hurried. There is no pigmentary equivalent of the photographic snap shot. Patience is a virtue.
The first photographs of people were likewise a gradual thing, with extended exposure times dictated by the slow speed of early plate and film processes. Once that obstacle was overcome, however, it became a simple thing to snap a person’s face in less and less time. Today, outside of the formal studio experience, most of us freeze faces in record timae, and that may be a bit of a problem in trying to create a true portrait of a person.
Portraits are more than mere recordings, since the subject matter is infinitely more complex than an apple or a vase of flowers. The daunting task of trying to capture some essential quality, some inner soulfulness with a mechanical device should make us all stop and think a little, certainly a little longer than a fraction of a second. Portraits at their best are a kind of psychoanalysis, an negotiation, maybe even a co-creation between two individuals. The best portraitists can be said to have produced a visible relic of something invisible. Can that be done in the instant that it takes to shout “cheese” at somebody?
And if the process of portraiture is, as I argue, an innately personal thing, how can we trust the “street portraits” that we steal from the unsuspecting passerby? Are any of these images revelatory of anything real, or have we only snatched a moment from the onrushing current of a person’s life? Taking the argument away from the human face for a moment, if I take a picture of a single calendar date page, have I made a commentary on the passage of time, or merely snapped a piece of paper with a number on it?
Painters have always been forced into some kind of relationship with their subjects. Some fail and some succeed, but all are approached with an element of planning, of intent. By contrast, the photographer must apprehend what he wants from a face in remarkably short time, and hope his instinct can make an intimate out of a virtual stranger.
TELL YOU WHAT’S BETTER….
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE AIM OF PHOTOGRAPHIC PROCESSING has shifted drastically in the post-digital age, and not necessarily in a good direction. Those of us old enough to remember mastadons, horse-drawn carriages and analog film were certainly aware that images could be edited or enhanced after the fact, conjuring up, say, memories of airbrush artists smoothing away chicken-pox scars from the shoulders of Miss January. We knew some of the magic happened in the lab.
Likewise, we knew that even the top masters did lots of tweaking in the darkroom prior to publication. The emphasis, however, was largely on perfecting an essentially strong picture, to make a good thing better/great. However, that emphasis is now placed, far too often, on trying to “save” images that were executed poorly in the first place, bringing marginal work up to some kind of baseline par of acceptability. That’s like the difference between polishing a Steinway and repainting a toy piano.
So, here’s my plea to those laboring to rescue their misbegotten babies in editing programs: Don’t repair. Re-shoot.
A good deal of the quick-fix buttons on editing programs should be marked with glowing red asterisks, with the following disclaimer at the bottom of the screen: WARNING: By using this change, you will fix your first proplem and create a different one somewhere else within your photograph. Let’s face it, no corrective action in editing happens in isolation. It must create a ripple effect, major or minor, in the final look of the image.
Use the “straighten” button for your misaligned shots, and they will lose sharpness. Suck out the darker shadows and your picture could lose dynamic range. Oversharpen your pictures and they will look harsh, with an unnatural transition between light and dark values. Reduce the noise in the image and it may appear flat, like pastel paint slathered on blotting paper.
Or here’s a radical notion: do all your thinking and planning before the shutter snaps. Yes, I know, I sound like some old schoolmarm scold, but please, can we at least consider the idea that there are no true shortcuts, that there can be no magical substitute for knowing your gear, developing an eye, and putting in the practice time required to make a photograph?
We once believed that patience was a virtue, that skill and mastery were more important than instant gratification. Know what? All of the greatest photographers still believe those things. And their work shows it.
It’s the truth. It’s actual. Everything is satisfactual. –lyrics from the Oscar-winning song Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY WAS ERRONEOUSLY BILLED, EARLY IN ITS DEVELOPMENT, as a mere recording of reality. This was, of course, an attempt to characterize the picture-making process as more bloodless, less artistic than painting, which was an interpretation of the world. What early haters of the camera failed to realize, of course, was that photographers were just as selective in their depiction of life as painters, since their medium too, was an interpretation…..of isolated moments, of preferred angles, of temporary actuality.
If you look at individual frames within a strip of motion picture film, it becomes perfectly clear that each still image is a self-contained world, with no way to intuit what has come before a given moment nor what will come next. Thus, no one frame is “reality” but a select sample of it. In daily photography, our choice of angle, approach, and especially light can allow us to create an infinite number of “realities” that only exist in the precise moment in which we see and freeze them.
Let’s look specifically at light. As it’s jumbled in multiple reflections, light is particularly precious to the photographer’s eye, since a captured image may recall an effect that even people within inches of the shooter could not see. In the above photo, for example, this mosaic of reflections inside the vestibule of a high-ceilinged building was visible from several specific positions in the foyer. Move yourself three feet either way, however, and this pattern could not be seen at all. In other words, this photographic “reality” came briefly into existence under the most controlled conditions, then was gone.
John Szarkowski, the legendary director of photography for the New York Museum of Modern Art, dedicates an entire section of his essential book The Photographer’s Eye to what he calls “Vantage Point” and its importance to a mastery of the medium. “Pictures (can) reveal not only the clarity but the obscurity of things…and these mysterious and evasive images can also, in their own terms, seem ordered and meaningful.”
Photography is about viewing all of reality and extracting little jewels from within it.
That’s not mere recording.
PHOTOSHOP THE MOMENT
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S BEYOND POINTLESS TO PREACH OF “PURITY” when it comes to photographic technique, although the argument springs up whenever the idea of manipulation comes up. It’s not even a new squabble. No sooner had science given the world a way to record reality with a machine than artists began tweaking, twisting, and torturing effects out of the camera that could only be done by deliberate intervention. So much for reality. In fact, photography’s first half-century boasts a rainbow of spectacular effects, undertaken precisely to undermine or improve upon the real world.
No, it’s about a century and a half too late to worry about whether people will alter their photographs and high time we explored what kind of manipulations are best for the overall impact of an image. I personally prefer to “photoshop the moment”, or to calculate what I need in a picture during the taking of it. I truly feel that, in most post-shutter tweaking, you lose an intangible something that might have made real magic if factored into the same-time making of the picture. The best thing about planning is, it gets easier to get better effects from simpler things, things that seem to work better for the picture if you design them into the shot rather than adding them later.
Take the ridiculously obvious tweak done in the above picture. 90% of the final photo here is in the composition of the shot, framing the entrance of this wonderful old house in the arch of its outer gate. The sunlight is perfect for the back two-thirds of the picture, but, given the position of the sun in late afternoon on that particular street, my first shot tended to render the arched topiary very dark, nearly a silhouette. Thing is, I really wanted the entire image to have a kind of fairy tale quality. I needed an intervention.
Easy fix. I walked back a few steps to make sure that my flash was just powerful enough to pop a hot green into the arch, yet too faint to illuminate anything else. As a result, the color you see here is not goosed up after the fact. I exposed for the house in the background and the fill flash made the foreground hues as bright as the stuff in back. Again, as planning goes, thus wasn’t the D-Day invasion. I just needed to make one simple change to solve my problem, and the fact that I did it during the original making of the picture made me feel like I was in charge of the project to a greater degree.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE FIRST COLOR PHOTOGRAPHS REALLY…WEREN’T. That is to say, the various recording media, from glass plates to film, were technically incapable of rendering color, leaving entrepreneurial craftsmen (mostly post card artists) to lovingly apply hues with paint and brush. It was the Fred Flintstone version of Photoshop, and, boy howdy, did it sell, regardless of the fact that most flesh tones looked like salmon and most skies looked more eggshell than azure. Until the evolution of a film-based process near the end of the 19th century, these watercolor pastels stood in for the real thing.
Winter’s months-long overcasts and grey days can remind a photographer of what it was like to only be able to capture some of the color in a given subject, as the change in light washes the brilliance out of the world, leaving it like a faded t-shirt and creating the impression that color, as well as botany, goes into the hibernational tomb during winter.
Of course, we can boost the hues in the aftermath just like those patient touch-up artists of the 1800’s, but in fact there are things to be learned from rendering tones on the soft pedal. In fact, reduced color is a kind of alternate reality. Capturing it as it actually appears, rather than amping it up to neon rudeness, can actually be a gentle shaper of mood.
Light that seeps through cloud cover is diffused, and shadows, if they survive at all, are faint and soft. The look is really reminiscent of early impressionism, and, when matched up with the correct subject matter, can complement a scene in a way that a more garish spectrum would only ruin.
Just like volume in music, color in photography is meant to speak at different decibel levels depending on the messaging at hand. Winter is a wonderful way to force ourselves to work out of a distinctly different paint box.
EXTENDING THE INVITATION
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY AND PAINTING, DESPITE ENGAGING THEIR AUDIENCES IN VERY DIFFERENT WAYS, have retained one common aim over the centuries, at least when it comes to pictorial or scenic subjects. Both the photo and the canvas arrange their visual information on a two-dimensional surface, and both seek to draw the viewer’s eye into a depth that is largely illusionary. The cameraman and the painter both contrive to create the illusion that the distance from front to back in their works is as real as the distance from side to side.
In terms of simulating depth, some photographs benefit from both shadow and light, which alternatively “model” the information in an image, making it seem to “pop” in some faux-dimensional sense. But the best and simplest trick of composition is what we popularly term the “leading line”, information that trails from the front of the picture and pulls the viewer’s attention to an inevitable destination somewhere deeper back in the scene.
Putting a picture together this way ought to be the most automatic of instincts in the composition of a photograph, but it still is formally taught, as if it were less than obvious. In fact, it just means extending an invitation to someone to join you “in” the photograph.
Trails, paths, railroad tracks, lines of trees or phone poles….these are all examples of information that can start at one side of a photo and track diagonally to the “back” of the image, making the eye experience a kind of gravity, tugging it toward the place you want their gaze to end up. It is also the easiest way to force attention to a central subject of interest, sort of like inserting a big neon arrow into the frame, glowing with the words over here.
Leading lines are a landscape’s best friend, as well, since the best landscapes are arranged so that the focal point of the story is streamlined and obvious. Anyone who has ever shown too much in a landscape will tell you that what fails in the composition is that it allows the viewer to wander around the place wondering what the point of the picture is. The use of a powerful leading line gives the illusion of depth and corrals the eyes of your audience to the exact spot you need them to be for full effect.
Composition is the most democratic of photographic skills. It’s easy, it’s free, and anyone from a point-and-shooter to a Leica addict can use it effectively. Bottom line: there are great things happening in your pictures. Invite the people inside.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MY PHOTOGRAPHY IS OCCASIONALLY AKIN TO MY GRANDMOTHER’S COOKING METHOD, which produced culinary miracles without a trace of written recipes or cookbooks. Her approach was completely additive; she merely kept throwing things into the pot until it looked “about right”. I was aware of the difference, in her hands, between portions that were labeled “smidges”, “tastes”, “pinches” and even “tads” (as in, “this is a tad too bitter. Give me the salt.) I never questioned her results: I merely scarfed them down and eagerly asked for seconds.
Picture making can also be a matter of adding enough pinches and tads to create just the right mix of factors for the image you need. It’s frequently as instinctual a process as Gram’s, but sometimes you have to analyze what worked by thinking the shot backwards after the fact. In the case of the above image, what you see, although it was shot very quickly, is actually the convergence of several different ingredients, the combination of which would be all wrong for some photos, but which actually served this subject fairly well.
The five-decker sandwich of factors in the shot begins with the building, which is quite intense in color all by itself, yet not quite contrasty enough to suit me in this specific instance. So let’s see all the hoops the camera had to jump through to get this particular image:
First, it was taken during the so-called “golden hour”, just before sunset, in late fall in Arizona. That guarantees at least one boost of the building’s native intensity. The next factor is the camera’s own color settings, which are set to “vibrant.” Level three comes from a polarizing filter, which is juicing the sky from its hazy southwestern “normal” to a deep blue. For the fourth element, I am also adding a second filtering component by shooting through a heavily tinted car window (there’s no other kind in Arizona), which presents here as the gradation of sky from blue at the top of the frame to a near aqua near the bottom. And finally, I am way under-exposing the shot at 1/320, deepening the colors yet one more time.
The fun of this is that it all happens ahead of the click, and keeps your fingers off the Photoshop trigger. Grandma may not have spent any more time laboring over a photo than a quick snap of a box Brownie, but she knew how to take stew meat and morph it into filet. And, as with the making of a picture, you just keep adding stuff until the mixture in the pot looks “about right.”
FADE TO (ALMOST) BLACK
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I KNOW MANY PHOTOGRAPHERS WHO SUBJECT THEMSELVES TO THE DELICIOUS TORTURE, known to authors everywhere,as “publish or perish”, or, in visual terms, the tyranny of shooting something every single day of their lives. There are lots of theories afloat as to whether this artificially imposed discipline speeds one’s development, or somehow pumps their imagination into the bulky heft of an overworked bicep. You must decide, o seekers of truth, what merit any of this has. I myself have tried to maintain this kind of terrifying homework assignment, and during some periods I actually manage it, for a while at least. But there are roadblocks, and one of the chief barriers to doing shot-a-day photography is subject matter, or rather the lack of it.
Let’s face it: even if you live one canyon away from the most breathtaking view on earth or walk the streets of the mightiest metropolis, you will occasionally look upon your immediate environs as a bad rerun of Gilligan’s Island, something you just can’t bear to look at without having a wastebasket handy. Familiarity breeds contempt for some subjects that you’ve visited and re-visited, and so, for me, the only way to re-mix old material is to re-imagine my technical approach to it. This is still a poor substitute for a truly fresh challenge, but it can teach you a lot about interpretation, which has transformed more than a few mundane subjects for me over a lifetime of shuttering (and shuddering).
As an example, a corner of my living room has been one of the most trampled-over crime scenes of my photographic life. The louvered shades which flank my piano can create, over the course of a day, almost any kind of light, allowing me to use the space for quick table-top macros, abstract arrangements of shadows, or still lifes of furnishings. And yet, on rainy /boring days, I still turn to this corner of the house to try something new with the admittedly over-worked material. Lately I have under-exposed compositions in black and white, coming as near a total blackout as I can to try to reduce any objects to fundamental arrangements of light and shadow. In fact, damn near the entire frame is shadow, something which works better in monochrome. Color simply prettifies things too much, inviting the wrong kind of distracted eye wandering in areas of the shot that I don’t think of as essential.
I crank the aperture wide open (or nearly) to keep a narrow depth of field, which renders most of the image pretty soft. I pinch down the window light until there is almost no illumination on anything, and allow the ISO to float around at least 250. I get a filmic, grainy, gauzy look which is really just shapes and light. It’s very minimalistic, but it allows me to milk something fresh out of objects that I’ve really over-photographed. If you believe that context is everything, then taking a new technical approach to an old subject can, in fact, create new context. Fading almost to black is one thing to try when you’re stuck in the house on a rainy day.
Especially if there’s nothing on TV except Gilligan.
PENCIL VS. INK
By MICHAEL PERKINS
RAISED AS THE SON OF AN ILLUSTRATOR WHO WAS ALSO A PHOTOGRAPHER, I have always been more comfortable with the idea of the photographic image as a work-in-progress rather than as a finished thing. That is, I bring a graphic artist’s approach to any project I do, which is to visualize an idea several different ways before committing myself to the final rendering. Call if sketching, roughing, rehearsing…..whatever…but, both on the page/canvas and the photograph, I see things taking shape over the space of many trial “drafts”. And, just as you don’t just step up and draw a definitive picture, you usually can’t just step up and snap a fully realized photo. I was taught to value process over product, or, if you will, journey over destination.
This belief was embodied in my dad’s advice to lay down as many pencil lines as possible before laying in the ink line. Ink meant commitment. We’re done developing. We’re finished experimenting. Ready to push the button and, for better or worse, live with this thing. Therefore the idea of a sketch pad, or preliminary studies of a subject, eventually led to a refined, official edition. This seems consistent with people like Ansel Adams, who re-imagined some of his negatives more than half a dozen times over decades, each print bearing its own special traits, even though his source material was always the same. Similarly, “studies” in music served as miniature versions of themes later realized in full in symphonies or concertos.
The photo equivalent of a sketch pad, for me in 2014, is the phone camera. It’s easy to carry everywhere, fairly clandestine, and able to generate at least usable images under most conditions. This allows me to quickly knock off a few tries on something that, in some cases, I will later shoot “for real” (or “for good”) with a DSLR, allowing me to use both tools to their respective strengths. The spy-eye-I-can-go-anywhere aspect of iPhones is undeniably convenient, but often as not I have to reject the images I get because, at this point in time, it’s just not possible to exert enough creative control over these cameras to give full voice to everything in my mind. If the phone camera is my sketch pad, my full-function camera is my ink and brush. One conceives, while the other refines and commits.
You write things like this knowing full well that technology will make a monkey out of you at its next possible opportunity, and I actually look forward to the day when I am free of the bulk and baggage of what are, at least now, better cameras overall. But we’re not there yet, and may not be for a while. I still make the distinction between a convenient camera and a “real” camera, and I freely admit that bias. A Porsche is still better than a bicycle, and the first time you’re booked as a pianist into Carnegie Hall, your manager doesn’t insist that they provide you with a state-of-the-art….Casio. It’s a Steinway or the highway.
THE PICTURES I HATE MOST
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN MY CHILDHOOD, I FIRST HEARD THE BIBLICAL PARABLE OF THE SHEPHERD who, upon finding that one of his flock of one hundred sheep had gone missing, forsook the other ninety-nine to undertake a desperate search for the single lost lamb. It was, certainly, a touching story, with its image of a father who would mourn over the loss of even the most wayward of his flock. And, although it didn’t occur to me at the time, it also came to serve as an early model for my idea of a photographer.
It’s not really that big a stretch. Like the shepherd, shooters always mourn the loss of the one that got away, or in terms of photographs, the shot that was never made. The one angle we forgot to foresee, the light we failed to read, the fleeting truth we neglected to capture. For sure, the photos you attempted and botched really do smart, a lot. A lot a lot. However, there is no pain like the emotional toothache caused by the shots that, for whatever reason, you never even tried to make. These aren’t “lost” images, since they never actually existed, but that doesn’t mean that their absence is any less poignant. One great recent examination of why we fail to shoot is found in a recent collection of essays by Will Steacy called Photographs Not Taken. Check out a capsule review of it here.
I lament the pictures I never made far more than the ones I have attempted and whiffed, since in most cases the contexts that surrounded those non-existent pics are, themselves, no longer, whether we’re talking about missed sunrises or final visits with loved ones. To be sure, re-dos are often off the table even for many of the pictures we did take, but, for some human reason, we mourn more intensely the ones that might have been. Worse yet, even failed images have some teaching value, whereas you learn zilch from the dances that you sat out.
This forum has never been about merely posting my greatest hits for the world to drool over. That is scrapbooking, and serves no purpose. Any honest examination of why we make images has to pause to grieve about failed chances, to sniffle a bit over the things we aimed at and missed. It sometimes has to be about pictures that I hate, and the ones I hate most are the ones I had neither the vision nor the nerve to create.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
“PHOTOGRAPHY DEALS EXCLUSIVELY WITH APPEARANCES” remarked Duane Michals years ago, “but, nothing is what it appears to be.” That’s a remarkably clear summation of the terms under which, with greater regularity, I approach things with my camera. In over fifty years of clicking away, I have never really felt like my work was reportage, or the recording of “reality”, but rather the use of reality like another paint brush or tube of color towards the more general goal of making a picture. What I wind up with certainly “appears” like something, but it’s not really a literal representation of what I saw. It is the thing I pointed the lens at, but, if I am lucky, it’s got some other extra ingredient that was mine alone. Or so I hope.
This idea that appearances are just elements in the making of something personal seems to be borne out on those photo “field trips” where instructors take a small mob of shooters out onto the street, all of them assigned to photograph the same subject or scene. Seldom is there a consistent result as these half dozen noobs frame up a common object, a phenomenon which argues for the notion of photography as interpretation, not just the making of a visual record. Consider: if the machine really were all, every one of the students’ images should look remarkably alike, but they generally don’t. How could they, when the mystery link in every shooter’s work flow has to be the “filter” of his or her own experiences? You show how a thing appears, but it doesn’t match someone else’s sense of what it is. And that’s the divine, civil argument our vision has with everyone else’s, that contrast between my eye and your brain that allows photographs to become art.
I think that it’s possible to worry about whether your photograph “tells a story” to such a degree that you force it to be a literal narrative of something. See this? Here’s the cute little girl walking down the country lane to school with her dog. Here’s the sad old man sitting forlornly on a park bench. You can certainly make images of narrowly defined narratives, but you can also get into the self-conscious habit of trying to bend your images to fit the needs of your audiences, to make things which are easy for them to digest.Kinda like Wonder Bread for the eye.
As photographers, we still sweat the answer to the meaningless question, “what’s that supposed to be?”, as if every exposure must be matched up with someone who will validate it with an approving smile. Thing is, mere approval isn’t true connection….it’s just, let’s say, successful marketing. Make a picture in search of something in yourself, and other seekers will find it as well.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I HAVE NEVER PARTICIPATED IN THE STRANGE NEW RITUAL known as “Throwback Thursday”, the terminally adorable craze involving the online resurrection of antique photos of oneself or friends, the purpose of which is apparently to celebrate our poor tonsorial and wardrobe choices of bygone days. I keep most historic depictions of myself under lock and key for a reason, and making myself look retroactively more idiotic than I am already, well, someone needs to explain to me where the “fun” part comes in. Just because I was once stupid enough to sport a shag cut doesn’t mean a record of that sad choice constitutes entertainment in the interweb age.
As a photographer, however, I can certainly see the wisdom of re-evaluating the images themselves, meaning how they were shot, or whether, under the microscopes of time and wisdom, they deserve to be aesthetically exonerated. Humane anglers have always practiced the “throw the small ones back” rule when fishing, the idea being that, given a chance, a minnow might grow into a respectable catch, and I think it’s normal to revisit old photos from time to time, as a record of one’s growth. I would even argue that a “Fishing Friday” each week would be good for the needful habit of self-editing, or just learning to see, no less than spending one’s Thursdays with painful reminders that hot pants really aren’t a fashion statement.
Yes, I am an aging crank. And yes, I do believe, as Yogi Berra once said, that nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. But I also believe in learning from one’s photographic mistakes, and reviewing old prints and slides actually does give you a pretty reliable timeline on your development. As a matter of fact, I am on record as believing that failures are far more instructive than successes when it comes to photography. You study and ache and cogitate over failures, whereas you seldom question a success at all. Coming up short just nags at you more, and the surprising thing about latter-day re-examinations of your photographic work is that you will also find things that actually worked, shots that, for some reason, you originally rejected.
Recently, the Metropolitan Art Museum mounted a show of Garry Winogrand’s amazing street work drawn from the hundreds of thousands of images that he shot but never processed or saw within his own lifetime. His is an extreme case, but, even at our end of the craft, we generate so many photos over a lifetime that we are constantly challenged to have a true sense of what we did even last year, much less decades ago. When we “throw back” to images of our dear departed dog blowing out his birthday candles, we should also shovel into the past for the instructive, potentially revelatory work that might be lurking in other shoeboxes. It’s free education.