the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Posts tagged “criticism

UNREQUITED LOVE (OR LIKE)

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ANYONE WHO TAKES PHOTOGRAPHS TO BE LOVED already has a headful of problems, none of which can be adequately dealt with in this space. Social media has, inarguably, made many of us slaves to the Dreaded Like Monster, that faceless, shapeless judgy universe of people who render some kind of…what, verdict? on one’s humble images merely by twitching their thumbs. I’m already on record in these pages as saying that the need for such faux validation can make a slave out of an artist, and promote the very worst (or at least the most mediocre) in photography. With all that in mind, however, we are, still, human, and the online embrace or rejection of a given photo can sometimes make us wonder about our choices. Was the picture that good? That bad? And who, really, is the arbiter of those terms?

You can’t help it: you sometimes fall in love with one of your pictures, even though, in a public forum, you can’t seem to give it away, much less make people fall in love with it. Really, though, how can it be otherwise? No one knows your instincts or intentions better than you do, let alone appreciate what technically went into the making of your work. That said, no one besides yourself can measure exactly how near or far from the mark your final effort has turned out. Of course, the argument is often made that we, as artists, are too close to the process, that, having sweated over a picture from start to finish, we can’t possibly be objective……an argument to which my reply might prove unfit for a family newspaper.

House Of The Holy, 2018

What are we saying? That the invisible mob, with a flick of its wrist and a stab of its “like” button knows more about your work than you do? Ridiculous. Now this is not to say that some people aren’t seriously flawed in their evaluation of their own stuff…with both a tendency to be too generous, and too critical. A truly balanced talent for self-editing is like a well-toned muscle: it only comes with uncompromising work and time. But there will always be those images that you feel you nailed, or at least came damned close on, but which do not connect with anyone but you. The temptation will be to react like a promoter trying to bring a product to market, which means regarding certain pictures as “failures”. However, this is a trap. Photography for the masses should be governed by popular taste if you’re doing product shots of cheese in order to up the sales of the Dairy Council. But when it’s a tool for selling your ideas, you can’t succumb to the temptation to make everything about gorgeous flowers and cute kitties. Creativity is not a commodity.

Full disclosure: the image seen here is one of my least “liked” images, if you’re measuring by the regular approval yardsticks of social media. I have many such photographs, pictures which are just plain invisible to others but, for a number of reasons, favorites with me. Given my intention for this photo, I can’t really apologize for it, since I don’t know any other honest way I could have made it, based on what I was going after. Notice, in that previous sentence, all the personal pronouns: if the picture doesn’t work for me, there is no way it can connect to anyone else. Art may sometimes be an inefficient delivery system for one’s visions, but it is never, ever served by a lie. Doing pictures so that they will please an audience is essentially fraudulent, and is really the only way your photographs can “fail”. If you believe an idea, chances are better that you will find someone who genuinely gets what you were after. Ignore those who echo the empty maxim that you have to “give the people what they want”. Figure out what you want, and either wait for others to follow, or get comfortable with standing alone. You’ll find that alone and honest is less lonely in the long run.


“LIKE”-MINDEDNESS

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ONE OF THE MOST INTERESTING THINGS about reading photographer’s discussions of their most celebrated work is that, frequently, they can only guess at what accounts for the success of one of their images over another. Even more fascinating is when they express their dismay that some of their personal favorites actually fail to connect with the public. I take heart at such accounts, because I, like many of you, have no idea what makes a photograph “work” for anyone else…not, at least, beyond what I hope for.

This, to me, rates a “hilarious” on the irony meter, since the present age values “likes”, “faves”, and “LOVEs” above all other laurels in photography in a way that has made us slaves to popular approval even as we remain completely clueless as to how it’s earned. No cute tricks succeed. We can’t just replicate what people liked about our past stuff. We can’t cynically analyze what vaulted others’ images into the like-o-sphere. We can’t even play to what we believe others’ biases to be. And, for the sake of our photographs, we’re foolish to even try.

As a personal illustration of my point, I have absolutely no idea why this image has, at this writing, racked up over 4,000 views in the space of three days. This is not me boasting. To boast, I’d have to be taking credit for something I understood or had something to do with. No, this is me being dumbfounded. The picture represents, for me, the most transitory of whims, a final frame clicked off in impulse on the way back to my car after I thought I’d done the “important” work of the day. I thought there was something mildly (underlined) interesting about seeing this public pool “at rest”, if you will, just a week ahead of the end of the school year. No kids. No noise. Not a ripple or a wave to be had. A picture of something that hasn’t happened yet. That’s it. It was truly a case of “let’s shoot this and see what (excuse me) develops”.

And so the views and likes pile up for this one, and knowing that fact is no help at all. I want to take the brief flashlight being shown on my least favorite child and shine it on my pet instead, but it don’t work that way. Humans are perverse. We desperately seek to make a connection, then kvetch about whether it was done with AC or DC current. We want you to like us, but we want you to like the same thing about us that we like about us.

This gap between what photographers hope is important and what strikes everyone else as noteworthy reminds me of the actress Nastassia Kinski, who once came onto the Letterman show with her hair pasted into a straight vertical spike two feet high. Dave decided to act as if this were as normal as having a nose between your eyes and proceeded through the the interview without a remark. As the segment drew to a close, a slightly desperate Kinski purred, ” you haven’t asked me about my hair..”, to which Letterman replied, “Oh, you want it to look like that…”


THE GENESIS OF REAL

By MICHAEL PERKINS

“(the book is) flawed by meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposure, drunken horizons, and general sloppiness, (showing) a contempt for quality and technique…” –Popular Photography, in its 1958 review of The Americans

urlTHOSE WORDS OF DISDAIN, designed to consign its subject to the ash heap of history, are now forever attached to the photographic work that, instead of vanishing in disgrace, almost single-handedly re-invented the way the world saw itself through the eye of a camera. For to thumb through Robert Frank’s 1958 collection of road images, The Americans, is to have one’s sense of what is visually important transformed. Forever.

In the mid-1950’s, mass-market photojournalist magazines from Life to Look regularly ran “essays” of images that were arranged and edited to illustrate story text, resulting in features that told readers what to see, which sequence to see it in, and what conclusions to draw from the experience. Editors assiduously guided contract photographers in what shots were required for such assignments, and they had final say on how those pictures were to be presented. Robert Frank, born in 1924 in Switzerland, had, by mid-century, already toiled in these formal gardens at mags that included Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, and was ready for something else, a something else where instinct took preference over niceties of technique that dominated even fine-art photography.

Making off for months alone in a 1950 Ford and armed only with a 35mm Leica and a modest Guggenheim grant, Frank drove across much of the United States shooting whenever and wherever the spirit moved him. He worked quickly, intrusively, and without regard for the ettiquette of formal photography, showing people, places, and entire sub-cultures that much of the country had either marginalized or forgotten. He wasn’t polite about it. He didn’t ask people to say cheese. He shot through the windshield, directly into streetlights. He didn’t worry about level horizons, under-or-over exposure, the limits of light, or even focal sharpness, so much as he obsessed about capturing crucial moments, unguarded seconds in which beauty, ugliness, importance and banality all collided in a single second. Not even the saintly photojournalists of the New Deal, with their grim portraits of Dust Bowl refugees, had ever captured anything this immediate, this raw.

Frank escaped a baker’s dozen of angry confrontations with his reluctant subjects, even spending a few hours in local jails as he clicked his way across the country. The terms of engagement were not friendly. If America at large didn’t want to see his stories, his targets were equally reluctant to be bugs under Frank’s microscope. When it was all finished, the book found a home with the outlaw publishers at Grove Press, the scrappy upstart that had first published many of the emerging poets of the Beat movement. The traditional photographic world reacted either with a dismissive yawn or a snarling sneer. This wasn’t photography: this was some kind of amateurish assault on form and decency. Sales-wise, The Americans sank like a stone.

Around the edges of the photo colony, however, were fierce apostles of what Frank had seen, along with a slowly growing recognition that he had made a new kind of art emerge from the wreckage of a rapidly vanishing formalism. One of the earliest converts was the King of the Beats Himself, no less than Jack Kerouac, who, in the book’s introduction said Frank had “sucked a sad poem right out of America and onto film.”

Today, when asked about influences, I unhesitatingly recommend The Americans as an essential experience for anyone trying to train himself to see, or report upon, the human condition. Because photography isn’t merely about order, or narration, or even truth. It’s about constantly changing, and re-charging, the conversation. Robert Frank set the modern tone for that conversation, even if he first had to render us all speechless.


THE FEEDBACK CURVE

Everything you shoot is reflective of your own view. That's the good part, and the risky part as well.

Everything you shoot is reflective of your own view. That’s the good part, and the risky part as well.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY, AND THE SPEED, ECONOMY AND EASE IT HAS BROUGHT TO NEARLY EVERYONE, has allowed an incredible acceleration of the learning curve for shooters, a temporal shortcut that has effectively enabled people to master in years what used to take a lifetime (not to say a personal fortune). Without the lag time and cost baked into the film medium, photographers can shoot a lot. Like, a lot.

Problem is, this skyrocketing learning curve for shooting skill has not been accompanied by an accompanying curve in editing skill. As a matter of fact, the two skills are going in opposite directions. And that is a bad, bad thing.

In the film era, there was limited admission to the “photographer’s club” at the pro level, and all pros had some way of winnowing out their weaker work. They had editors, publishers, or some kind of independent eye to separate the wheat from the chaff. Only the best work was printed or displayed. Not everyone made the cut. Some of us had to admit that we didn’t have “it”. There was more to photography than the mere flick of our shutter fingers.

Now enter the digital age, and, with it, the ersatz democracy of the internet age. Suddenly, all of everyone’s photos are equal, or so we have come to think. All images go to the infinite shoebox of the web: the good stuff, the not-so-good stuff, the what-the-hell stuff, all of it. Accounts on Flickr and Instagram allow posters a massive amount of upload space, and there are few, if any strictures on content or quality. But here’s the ugly truth: if all of our photos are special, then none of them are.

You can take most of the formalized schools on photography and sink them in the nearest bog with no damage to any of us, with one singular exception: those tutorials which teach us how to objectively evaluate our own work. Knowing how to wield the scissors on one’s own “babies” is the most important skill in all of photography, because, without that judgement, no amount of technical acumen matters.

If you don’t learn what is good and how close or far you, yourself have come to that mark, then how can anything become exceptional, or excellent? If your work has never had to face real critical heat, there is no incentive for you to change or evolve. This is increasingly important for the millions of self-publishing shooters and scribblers like me who presume to pronounce on what photography is. Just cause we’re in print don’t mean we’re right, or even honest.

Art cannot grow in a vacuum, and so, I say again, if we can’t self-edit, we can’t claim to be photographers, not in any real way. The curve of honest self-evaluation must soar alongside the curve of technical acuity, or the whole thing’s a joke.


DON’T LIKE, LOOK

Looking at photographs is no less a skill than producing them.

Looking at photographs is no less a skill than producing them.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I RECENTLY OVERHEARD A CONVERSATION BETWEEN TWO YOUNG WOMEN which involved the viewing of one woman’s phone images, which she was sharing with her friend. Perhaps “sharing” is too generous a term, as the review of pictures, rendered with a cross-telephone swipe between each one, took approximately ten seconds, punctuated by the following remarks:

“That’s cool..”

THAT‘s cool…”

“That one’s REALLY cool…send it to me, willya?”

Love it…”

“Oh, too cute…”

Totally cool…”

The present age’s crushing overload of sensory information, including the billions of photographs snapped each day, has turned us into a nation of glimpsers. We sense images only fleetingly as they zoom past our window, each new one obliterating the one which preceded it, each one awaiting its own turn to be eclipsed by something newer, cooler, cuter. While the operative word for those viewing the world’s first photographs might have been: look. Now that word is simply: next. 

Whatever, dude. We don’t even care whether someone has examined, considered, or absorbed our photographs, as long as they issue a perfunctory, agreeable grunt of some sort between each one or reflexively (and meaninglessly) twitch a “like” click in the appropriate box. The sheer volume of things to be reviewed, and, God spare us, ruled on in some way has turned us into a race of card shufflers. There, we promise. We’ve processed your output and pronounced most of it passable.

Gee, thanks a lot. Thanks for nothing.

The ability to churn out photographs like potato chips certainly provides more opportunities for more people to produce something great. However, if our view of those scads of potential masterpieces is akin to watching bicycle spokes whiz by, then we cannot meet the photographer’s vision with any appreciative seeing of our own. Certainly, some photographs are not worthy of large audiences, but we also have become lousy audiences for the pictures that do deserve to be lingered over, thought about, treasured.

Do a favor for the people in your lives that take photographs. “Like” them a lot less. Look at them a lot more. There is no rush, except the one in your head. Appreciating beauty, or wonder, or art is not a homework assignment, to be tossed off on the way to the next, new thing. Give the pictures time to talk to you. Give yourself back the ear to hear.

Slow the bloody hell down.


SHOW, DON’T TALK

Got a feeling inside (can’t explain)
It’s a certain kind (can’t explain)
I feel hot and cold (can’t explain)
Yeah, down in my soul, yeah (can’t explain)—–Pete Townshend

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHY NEEDS MORE ARTISTS AND FEWER ART CRITICS. Period, full stop.

When it comes to imaging, those who can, do, and those who can’t, curate shows. Or pontificate on things they had no hand in creating. It’s just human nature. Some of us build skyscrapers and some of us are “sidewalk superintendents”, peering through the security fencing to cluck our tongues in scorn, because, you know, those guys aren’t doing it right.

Even wonderful pioneers in “appreciation” like the late John Szarkowski, one of the first curators of photography at the New York Museum of Modern Art , and a tireless fighter for the elevation of photography to a fine art, often tossed up bilious bowlfuls of word salad when remarking on the work of a given shooter. As essays his remarks were entertaining. As explanations of the art, they were redundant.

What is this photograph saying? Well, that's for you to decide, isn't it?

What is this photograph “saying”? Well, that’s for you to decide, isn’t it?

This human need to explain things is vital if you’re trying to untie the knotted language of a peace treaty or complete a chemical equation, but it just adds lead boots to the appreciation of photography, which is to be seen, not read about (sassy talk for a blogger, no? Oh, well). No amount of captioning (even by the artist) can redeem a badly conceived photograph or make it speak more clearly. It all begins to sound like so many alibis, so many “here’s what I was going for” footnotes. Photography is visual and visceral. If you reached somebody, the title of the image could be “Study #245” and it still works. If not, you can append the biggest explanatory screed since the Warren Report and it’s still a lousy photo.

I’m not saying that all context is wrong in regard to a photo. Certainly, in these pages, we talk about motivation and intention all the time. However, such tracts can never be used to do the actual job of communicating that the picture is supposed to be doing. Asked once about the mechanics of his humor, Lenny Bruce spoke volumes by replying,” I just do it, that’s all.” I often worry that we use captioning to push a viewer one way or another, to suggest that he/she react a certain way, or interpret what we’ve done along a preferred track. That is the picture’s task, and if we fail at that, then the rest is noise.