By MICHAEL PERKINS
HOW TO FEEL OLD, EXAMPLE #473: Sending a photograph of a “shirt pocket” A.M. transistor radio from the early ’60 to a friend, only to have said friend’s grandson ask him what the object is.
We often talk in these pages about context and how that can shape an image. If people have context for the subjects you depict, or understand how they relate to other things in their experience, they interpret the picture in a certain way. I know that thing, I use it everyday. Remove that context, however, making the subject a kind of associative free-spot, not tied to any particular memory or use, and the object loses its meaning. It’s unanchored, and can mean anything the photographer intends. My friend shouldn’t be surprised that my old radio is meaningless in his grandson’s experience. But if I am a photographer who’s chosen to re-purpose that radio in a context of my own making, my options are wide open.
Most things in our world are designed to do one thing. For example, a piano is never asked to do the work of a crescent wrench. But, the argument could be made, if you somehow don’t know what a piano is for, I can photographically tell you it is… a crescent wrench. The clear object in the above photo is designed for one task only…to hold and help dispense razor blade cartridges (see left). Its context is so narrow that, as soon as I remove it from my bathroom sink, it is already without a visual frame of reference. I can thus abstract it in nearly any way I want…for example, suggesting that it’s a futuristic concept car in a world’s fair. Yes, it’s a fairly silly exercise, but I show it here not to demonstrate how marvelously inventive I am but how inventive it’s possible to be, once an interesting thing is de-purposed and then re-purposed by the photographer’s eye.
What is macro photography, if not an attempt to make us see things in a completely different way, to make a creepy bug look like a marvel of engineering or a garden flower a self-contained universe? We don’t really consider to what extent we are constantly re-purposing things with our cameras. Even adjustment in white balance or lighting are attempts to impose our own perception onto reality…..again, to take it out of one context (the sky is always blue in the afternoon) and re-frame it in another (not today: today the sky is magenta). For me, the ultimate complement is not, “oh, what a pretty picture” but “I never looked at it that way.” Because photography begins as a mere documentary craft, but ripens, in the right hands, into an interpretive art.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY PHOTOGRAPH REMOVES SOMETHING from its original context, extracting it from its proper place in the world at large. In the act of placing things in a frame, the photographer excludes whatever else once surrounded that thing, so that, in the final result, a vast valley is reduced to one tree in one part of one meadow. Our mind stipulates to the supporting reality of whatever was extracted, and we either approve or disapprove of the shooter’s arbitrary editorial choice in composing the frame.
And so pictures often annihilate an object’s “origin story”, since we can’t often search them to view what something “came from”. Objects in a photograph merely are, with little obvious evidence of what they used to be. Sometimes that means that, when we do see where something originated, a picture of it can seem exotic or strange. And, as photographers, we can train ourselves to find that one view of a thing that has been, in effect, under-explored.
In the above picture, something that we tend to think of as being organically “born” in a natural setting (i.e., a cactus) is shown being deliberately farmed within a controlled environment (i.e., a greenhouse). It looks a little wrong, a bit strange…..certainly not typical. And yet, an interesting picture can be made from the scene, simply because we never see a cactus’ origin story, given that most photographs don’t select that story within their frames. This picture really doesn’t display its information in an original fashion: it’s the thing, in this particular context, that makes the photograph seem novel.
As always, the choices made inside and outside the frame of a photograph set the narrative for it. It’s therefore the most important choice a photographer can make.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF A STREET PHOTOGRAPHER IS GOING TO ASK HIS AUDIENCE TO EXTRACT A STORY FROM AN IMAGE, then he must ensure that he is putting that same story into his pictures. Just suggesting a narrative, especially in a photograph, is not the same as conveying one. In legal terms, you are asking your viewers to “assume facts not in evidence.”
Do you have to spell everything out, like an S.O.S. in a bowl of alphabet soup? No, but just pointing your camera at just anything happening “on the street” doesn’t guarantee emotional impact, either. Nor does it imbue your pix with profundity, irony, or anything else that wasn’t happening through your eyes before it went through the lens. No street shot is guaranteed “authenticity” just because you were on the street when you pressed the shutter.
Look at the image at left, which I snapped rather accidentally while taking a lot of images of a crowded food market. I did not mean for the gentleman in the wheelchair to be the main appeal of this frame, but even though he’s been cropped to now be central to the shot, there is no clear narrative that “saves” this photo, or makes it compelling on its own terms.
Let’s dissect the picture to see why it fails. What it is, in raw terms, is a man in a wheelchair, sitting alone, wearing dark clothing, his face hidden.That is all that’s absolutely proven in the picture. Now, let’s assume that I was going for something poignant, a human “moment” if you will. Such moments are the heart and soul of great street shots, but this one is missing far too much vital information. If the man is “sad”, is it because he’s in a wheelchair? Why, and who am I to say so? After all, maybe he just had some restorative surgery which, after a month in the chair, will restore him to star-athlete status. Or maybe he is in the wheelchair for life and yet enjoys a richer existence than I do.
Let’s go farther. His face is hidden, but what story can I make the viewer believe is true about that? Is he catching a cat nap while his pile scores him a slice of pizza? Is he doing special exercises? Praying? Does his hat fit badly? Is he depressed, or actually a master of meditation who’s more connected to the cosmos than I can even dream of? And then there’s the monochrome. This picture began as a color shot, but I certainly didn’t increase its impact merely by sucking out the hues. That is, there isn’t some clear message that was being muffled by color which now speaks in a clear voice in mono. Finally, the cropping makes him the prominent feature in the photo without making him the dominant one. The background of the original was distracting, to be sure, but, as with the color, taking it away didn’t add to the picture’s force. If anything, it made it weaker. The man can’t be ironic or poignant since I’ve now cut him off from everything that provides context to his role in the picture.
You get the idea of the exercise. This shot, color or mono, cropped or wide, had nothing clear to say about the human condition. It was taken on the street but it ain’t “street” in effect. Try the same ruthless analysis with your own “near-miss” shots. It’s a humbling but educational process.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CITIES ARE A CONTINUOUS POST-GRADUATE COURSE IN THE MILLIONS OF DIFFERENT WAYS TO SEE. They not only afford an endless array of things to visualize, but offer up just as many vantage points or angles to frame, select, show, or conceal them. It’s just as much about how you shoot something as what you selected to shoot.
My favorite images in urban environments are essentially stolen glances. Brief shards of light arrowing past a subway car window. Slanted slashes of sun crawling up an alley wall. And, more recently, views of the street that hide as much as they reveal, teasing winks of the city in all its rhythm as viewed from the inside out.
It might be the tension, or the anticipation of a scene that is not, but is just about to be, cracked fully open. People pass by framed by windows, distorted by warps and reflections, amputated and edited by panels, shadows, partially eclipsed by walls. It’s a visual striptease. Now you see life, now you don’t, now, here it comes again. Sometimes standing just inside the entrance of a building can feel like viewing life at a distance, as anonymously as you might watch surveillance video on a giant screen or a movie in a dark theater.
Photography is one part content and one part context. We have all been surprised when someone standing right next to us points a camera in the same general direction that we do and comes away with a completely different kind of image. That surprise is the shock-reminder of our very individual way of framing and selecting information, and cities offer a remarkable laboratory for sampling all of those variances.
Inside looking out or outside looking in, the view is the thing.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY CAN GO TWO WAYS ON CONTEXT. It can either seek out surroundings which comment organically on subjects (a lone customer at a largely empty bar, for example) or it can, through composition or editing, artificially create that context (five people in an elevator becomes just two of those people, their locked hands taking up the entire frame). Sometimes, images aren’t about what we see but what we can make someone else seem to see.
Creating your own context isn’t really “cheating” (are we really still using that word?), because you’re not creating a new fact in the photograph, so much as you are slapping a big neon arrow onto said fact and saying, “hey look over here.” Of course, re-contextualizing a shot can lead to deliberate mis-representation of reality in the wrong hands (see propaganda, use of), but, assuming we’re re-directing a viewer’s attention for purely aesthetic reasons (using our powers for good), it can make a single photo speak in vastly different ways depending on where you snip or pare.
In the above situation, I was shooting through the storefront window of a combined art studio and wine bar (yes, I hang with those kind of people), and, given that the neighborhood I was in regularly packed folks in on “gallery hop” nights, the place was pretty jammed. The original full frame showed everything you see here, but also the connecting corridor between the studio and the wine bar which was, although still crowded, a lot less claustrophobic than this edited frame suggests.
And that’s really the point. Urban “hangs” that are so over-attended can give me the feeling of being jammed into a phone booth, like I’m part of some kind of desperately lonely lemming family reunion, so I decided to make that crushed sensation the context of the picture. Cropping down to a square frame improved the balance of the photograph but it also made these people look a little trapped, although oddly indifferent to their condition. The street reflections from the front plane of glass also add to the “boxed in” sensation. It’s a quick way to transform a snap into some kind of commentary, and you can either accept my choice or pass it by. That’s why doing this is fun.
Urban life presents a challenging series of social arrangements, and context in photographs can force a conversation on how that affects us.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY TIME MY WIFE AND I TRAVEL, A STRANGE PHENOMENON OCCURS. We will be standing on the exact same geographic coordinates, pointing separate cameras in generally the same general area. And, invariably when she gets her first look at the pictures I took on that day, I will hear the following:
Where was THAT? I don’t remember seeing that!? Where was I?
Of course, we see differently, as do any two shooters. Some things that are blaring red fire alarms to one of us are invisible, below the radar, to the other. And of course we are both right. And valid. Admittedly, I do seem to come back with more strange, off-to-the-side-of-the road oddities than Marian does, but that may be due more to my wildly spasmodic attention span than any real or rare “vision”. Lots of it comes because I consciously trying to overcome the numbing experience of driving in a car. I have to work harder to take notice of the unconventional when repeatedly tracking back and forth,day after day, down routine driving routes. Familiarity not only breeds contempt, it also fosters artificial blindness. The “outliers” within five miles of your own house should glow like fluorescent paint….but often they seem cloaked by a kind of habit-dulled camo.
Once detected, outliers don’t quite fit within their neighboring context. The last Victorian gingerbread home in a clutch of tract houses. The old local movie theatre reborn as a Baptist church. Or, in a place like Phoenix, Arizona, where urban development is not only unbridled but seemingly random, the rare “undeveloped” lot, crammed between more familiar symbols of sprawl.
The above image is such an outlier. It’s about an acre-and-a-half of wild trees bookended by a firehouse,
a row of ranch houses, and a busy four-lane street. Everything else on the block screams “settled turf”, while this strange stretch of twisted trunks looks like it was dropped in from some fairy realm. At least that’s what it says to me.
My first instinct in cases like this is to get out and shoot, attempting, as I go, to place the outlier in its own uncluttered context. Everything else around my “find” must be rendered visually irrelevant, since it adds nothing to the image, and, in fact, can diminish what I’m after. Sometimes I also tweak my own color mix, since natural hues also may not get my idea across.
Even after all this, I often find that there is no real revelation to be had, and I must chalk the entire thing up to practice. Occasionally, I come back with something to show my wife. And I know I have struck gold if the first thing out of her mouth is, “Where is THAT?”
To paraphrase the old proverb, behind every great man is a woman who rightfully asks, “Do you know what you’re doing?”
Sometimes I have an answer….