By MICHAEL PERKINS
TO PERFECT THE PRACTICE OF PHOTOGRAPHY, YOU MUST FIRST ENDEAVOR to perfect yourself. Cameras are merely recording devices, and rather dumb ones at that, without the guidance of the human eye. And keeping that eye, and the spirit that animates it, free of pollution or imperfection, is the work of a lifetime.
Seeing well often entails slowing down the very process of seeing, of letting time refine your way of taking in information. Call it contemplation, call it concentration, but know that making images is chiefly abetted by improving how you perceive the world. How can it be otherwise? At times like this, I head for the pages of Leaves Of Grass, Walt Whitman’s grand map for becoming a human, perhaps the greatest literature ever created in America. He rings inside my head every time I slow myself enough to perceive the world on its terms, rather than on my own. And when his astonishing language and the glory of the world converge, I feel like I have at least a fighting chance to make a picture that I may, in time, cherish.
To me, every hour of the day and night is an unspeakably perfect miracle.
Give me, odorous at sunrise, a garden of beautiful flowers where I can walk undisturbed.
I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.
Re-examine all that you have been told; dismiss that which insults your soul.
Armed with such words, or words that likewise define truth for yourself, you find that the pictures come, first in a trickle, then in a floodtide. The world is filled with images that are virtually waiting to jump into your mind and your camera. Open the door and bid them welcome.
A TRIAL SEPARATION
By MICHAEL PERKINS
A PERSON’S RELATIONSHIP WITH PHOTOGRAPHY, MEASURED OVER A LIFETIME, can come to resemble a marriage, with all the occasional rifts, rumbles and repellents of living with anyone (or anything) nonstop ’til death. Just as any good golfer has thrown the odd club into the 7th hole lake, any shooter worth his emulsions/pixels will, at least once, consider pitching his gear into the nearest abyss, then setting a cheery bonfire of his accumulated work alight in the home driveway (after securing all necessary permits, of course). I dare you to deny it. We hate intensely because we have loved intensely, and fallen intensely short.
The fury eventually abates, however, and we resume the “on” portion of the on again/off again love of photography, not knowing when it next will toggle to “off”, or if switching back to “on” even has any prospect of success. The fact is, creative passion can generate emotional surges, microbursts of feeling so intense they could pop the top off a seismograph. This means answering “the questions” as they ring inside your skull:
Why did I ever start doing this?
What made me thing I’d ever be any good at it?
And where is that damned lens?????
In the interest of my own sanity, I never contemplate a total divorce from photography, but I avidly support the need for a trial separation from time to time. Every relief valve has to be opened and flushed out occasionally, and when the ideas, or the patience to execute them, seem to have gone south for the winter, you have to furlough the workers and shut down the plant. For a while. Hammering away at a problem with an image may eventually loosen what’s stuck, but it’s just as valuable to know when to lay down your tools and quit the scene. For a while. Once your brain is running on high-octane rage, all things beautiful and visionary will just be drowned out by all the screaming, so, really, I’m not kidding: accept the fact that occasionally you’ll announce to all your friends and family that you’re “over the whole photography thing”. And you will absolutely mean it.
For a while.
Here’s another thought: fake-quitting photography will provide the most severe test of how much you were into it in the first place. A trial separation is just that: a test to see if there was anything worth saving in the relationship. Scary process, but, if you come back, whether to a partner or a Nikon, you come back renewed and freshly committed to Make This Thing Work. All of a sudden, you’re bringing your Canon chocolates and roses, and arranging for a romantic candlelight dinner. And the work grows again.
For a while.
SET AND SHOOT
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AUTOMODES ON CAMERAS ARE SUPPOSED TO AFFORD THE PHOTOGRAPHER AN ENHANCED SENSE OF COMFORT AND SAFETY, since, you know, you’re protected from your very human errors by the camera’s loving, if soulless, oversight. Guess wrong on a shutter speed? The auto has your back. Blow the aperture? Auto is on the case. And you always get acceptable pictures.
That is, if you can put your brain on automode as well.
Okay, that statement makes the top ten list for most arrogant openings in all of Blogdom, 2014. But I stand by it. I don’t think you should get comfortable with your equipment calling the shots. However, getting comfortable with your equipment’s limits and strengths, and gradually relying on your own experience for consistent results through exploitation of that knowledge….now that’s another thing entirely. It’s the difference between driving cross-country on cruise control and knowing, from years of driving, where in the journey your car can shine, if you drive it intelligently.
Photographers call some hunks of glass their “go-to” lenses, since they know they can always get something solid from them in nearly any situation. And while we all tend to wander around aimlessly for years inside Camera Toyland, picking up this lens, that filter, those extenders, we all, if we shoot enough for a long time, settle back into a basic gear setup that is reliable in fair weather or foul.
This is better than using automodes, because we have chosen the setups and systems that most frequently give us good product, and we have picked up enough wisdom and speed from making thousands of pictures with our favorite gear that we can “set and shoot”, that is, calculate and decide just as quickly as most people do with automodes…..and yet we keep the vital link of human input in the creative chain.
Like most, I have my own “go-to” lens and my own “safe bet” settings. But, just as you save time by not trying to invent the wheel every time you step up, you likewise shouldn’t be averse to greasing an old wheel to make it spin more smoothly.
How about that, I also made the top ten list for unwieldy metaphors.
A good day.
ASSISTANTS AND APPROACHES
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHO CAN SAY WHY SOMETHING CALLS OUT TO US VISUALLY? I have marveled at millions of moments that someone else has chosen to slice off, isolate, freeze and fixate on, moments that have, amazingly, passed something along to me in their photographic execution that I would never have slowed to see in the actual world. It’s the assist, the approach, if you will, of the photographer that makes the image compelling. It’s the context his or her eye imposes on bits of nature that make them memorable, even unforgettable.
It’s occurred to me more than once that, given the sheer glut of visual information that the current world assaults us with, the greatest thing a photographer can do is at least arrest some of it in its mad flight, slow time enough to make us see a fraction of what is racing out of our reach every second. I don’t honestly know what’s more fascinating; the things we manage to freeze for further consideration, or the monstrous ocean of visual data that is lost, constantly.
There’s a reason photography has become the world’s most loved, hated, trusted, feared, and treasured form of storytelling. For the first time in human history, these last few centuries have afforded us to catch at least a few of the butterflies of our fleeting existence, a finite harvest of the flurrying dust motes of time. It’s both fascinating and frustrating, but, like spellbound suckers at a magic show, we can’t look away, even when the messages are heartbreaking, or horrible.
We are light thieves, plunderers on a boundless treasure ship, witnesses.
Assistants to the seeing eye of the heart.
It’s a pretty good gig.
PULL DOWN THE NOISE
by MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY OFTEN SPEAKS LOUDER IN A SOFTER VOICE. Think about it. If you accept the idea of visual information as a sort of “sound”, then it’s easy to see why some images don’t make a direct connection with viewers. They are busy, overloaded with information, or, in this metaphor, noisy, loud. Cachophonous. Chaotic. Too many “sounds” competing for attention. In a visual image, “noise” can be anything that keeps anyone from hearing the “voice” of your image. To be seen more clearly, pictures need to go soft, in order to be heard louder.
That usually means simplifying the image. Shaping its tone, its framing, its central message. In photography, we all make the mistake of trying to show everything, and, in the process, creating an overdose of data that sends the viewer’s eye wandering all around the picture, trying to find something, anything, to focus on. We present a three-ring circus where just one would be more than adequate.
On a recent trip to an art studio in Paradise Valley, Arizona, I was lucky enough to be present when artisans were pouring molten bronze into decorative molds for all us green “touristas”. Capturing the scene “as is” was easy, as I had plenty of time to calculate exposure and lighting. As a result, I got a lot of “acceptable” pictures good enough for the average postcard, but their storytelling quality was only so-so, since they were almost too full of color, detail and people/props. In the moment, I merely recorded a group of people in a crowded shop doing a job. The tonal balance was “perfect” according to the how-to books, as if I had shot the images on full auto. In fact, though, I had shot on manual, as I always do, so where was my imprint or influence on the subject? The pictures weren’t done.
Back home, when my brain had time to go into editor mode, I realized that the glowing cup of metal was the only essential element in the pictures, and that muting the colors, darkening the detail and removing extra visual clutter was the only way that the center of the shot could really shine.
With that in mind, I deepened the shadowy areas, removed several extraneous onlookers and amped up the orange in the cup. Seems absurdly simple, but as a result, the image was now a unique event instead of a generic “men at work” photo. The picture had to use a softer voice to speak louder.
Great picture? Not yet.
But, hey, I’m still young.
Best thing about the creative process, unlike banking, building or brain surgery, is the luxury of do-overs. And doing over the do-overs, over.
- On the Nature + Purpose of Photography (statenislandstories.wordpress.com)
OPTING FOR IMPERFECTION
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOMETIMES I LOSE MY WAY, CREATIVELY. Given that cameras are technical devices and not creative entities, we all do. We have been given, in today’s market, wonderful aids to seeing and interpreting what we consider noteworthy. Technological advances are surging so swiftly in the digital era that we are being given scads of pre-packaged effects that are baked into the brains of our cameras, ideally designed to help us calculate and fail less, succeed and create more. To that end, we are awash in not only genuinely beneficial shortcuts like programmable white balance and facial recognition, but “miniature”, sketch, selective desaturation, and, recently, in-camera HDR options as well. Something of a tipping point is occurring in all this, and maybe you feel it as strongly as I do; more and more of our output feels like the camera, the toys, the gimmicks are dictating what gets shot, and what it finally looks like.
Here’s the nugget in all this: I have been wrestling with HDR as both a useful enhancer and a seductive destroyer for about three years now. Be assured that I am no prig who sees the technique as unworthy of “pure” photography. Like the old masters of burning and dodging, multiple exposure, etc., I believe that, armed with a strong concept, you use whatever tool it takes to get the best result. And when it comes to rescuing details in darker patches, crisping up details in certain materials like brick and stone, and gently amplifying color intensity, HDR can be a marvelous tool. Where it becomes like crack is in coming to seem as if it is the single best gateway to a fully realized image. That is wrong, and I have more than a few gooey Elvis-on-black-velvet paintings that once had a chance to be decent pictures, before they were deep-fried in the conceptual Crisco of bad HDR. Full disclosure: I also have a few oh-wow HDR images which delivered the range of tone and detail that I honestly believe would have been beyond my reach with a conventional exposure. The challenge, as always, is in not using the same answer to every situation, and also to avoid using an atomic bomb to swat a fly.
Recently, I am looking at more pictures that are not, in essence, flawless, and asking, how much solution do I need here? How much do I want people to swoon over my processing prowess versus what I am trying to say? As a consequence, I find that images that I might have reflexively processed in HDR just a few weeks ago, are now agonized over a bit longer, with me often erring on the side of whatever “flaws” may be in the originals. Is there any crime in leaving in a bit more darkness here, a slight blowout in light there, if the overall result feels more organic, or dare I say, more human? Do we have to banish all the mystery in a shot in some blind devotion to uniformity or prettiness?
I know that it was the camera, and not me, that actually “took” the picture, but I have to keep reminding myself to invest as much of my own care and precision ahead of clicking the shutter, not merely relying on the super-toys of the age to breathe life into something, after the fact, that I, in the taking, could not do myself. I’m not swearing off of any one technique, but I always come back to the same central rule of the best kind of photography; do all your best creative work before the snap. Afterwards, all your best efforts are largely compensation, compromise, and clean-up.
It’s already a divine photographic truth that some of the best pictures of all time are flawed, imperfect, incomplete. That’s why you go back, Jack, and do it again.
The journey is as important as the destination, maybe more so.