By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT OCCURRED TO ME, RECENTLY, TO LIST SOME OF THE WORKS OF ART that have imparted the greatest sense of peace to me, and to take note of how many of them were first conceived in a spirit of resistance or struggle.
A few come to mind at once: the stirring finale of Tchaikovsky’s 1812: the stirring images of Dust Bowl Americans striving to emerge from devastation and despair: nearly every page of every Dickens novel. Many of the things we recognize as artistically eternal or universal were originally created as protests, as deliberate acts of soulful sabotage against the prevailing darkness. Any act of art, including a photograph, can begin as a raised fist against something unthinkable, but the photograph itself can defy the odds in a different way: by being a defiant declaration of joy.
Journalistic images certainly play a key role in combating fear and ignorance, shining a light where some prefer it not be shone. But the very act of art is, itself, a protest….against the view that life is worthless, against the seductive pull of despair. Art is the affirmation of life, the insistence that it continue, even thrive. Like the flower peeping through the wire seen in this image, we aspire…we arc ourselves toward whatever light there is. And so, it’s easy to make a list of pictures that have gone beyond mere reportage to become celebrations of the things in the world that are still elegant, beautiful, and soul-sustaining.
There are days, like those of the present age (and countless ages before this), when it seems that night will never end, and, for those days, art that cries freedom, that re-certifies the best of us, is surely a revolutionary act. It’s more than merely “cheering up”, and it’s certainly not a turning away from “reality”. It is, instead, a refusal to go quietly, an act of resistance that says that hope is not only possible, but the only perpetually blooming human instinct that can bore through the stone of silence, the barriers of hate.
Photographs are part of this refusal to lie down and die, a tool that the artist can use to stoop down into the rubble and resurrect something that will outlast the night. In measuring light inside our magic boxes, we preserve it, sanctify it, and, in so doing, all of us, one image at a time, begin to save the world entire.
WORTH A THOUSAND PICTURES
By MICHAEL PERKINS
A LITTLE RESEARCH REVEALS THAT THE MOST POPULAR NAME FOR ALL OF THE PHOTOGRAPHS ever published over two hundred-some years’ time is, simply, “untitled”. This used to strike me, in my younger days, as laziness or dullness on the part of the photographer, but now I often see it as the perhaps the best approach. A picture may, indeed, be worth a thousand words, but it only takes a handful of those words to diminish an image’s effect.
Adding a title or caption to a photo can actually bruise its power. Titling anchors an image by telling the viewer what it is supposed to be (or not be), a function that should fall to the image alone. Giving a picture a simple name, like Niagara Falls Vacation, 1969 is an act of cataloguing, but any ability the photograph has to be universal or timeless is hemmed in by whatever words accompany it, so that even a basic title can have an unintended effect.
And then there are the acts of people other than the original photographer, an editor for example, who may arbitrarily assign context or “meaning” to an image by labeling it later. This has obviously resulted in real mischief by those who want to appropriate a photo to bolster their own messages, a practice which could lead to its impact being prostituted or used for any variety of nefarious aims.
Absent a caption, a photograph is forced to speak for itself. As an exercise: in the above image, is the child tired, discouraged, frightened, jealous, in pain, at risk, even joyful or grateful? If I reveal the rather ordinary truth about the image, that it was taken of a boy who was disappointed at not being able to remain longer in a zoo’s gift shoppe, that short-circuits any other meaning that the viewer might want to bring to it. It stunts its impact.
And, yes, it might be too cute by half if I craft some playfully obscure name for the picture (as I tend to) or just number it, or even call it “untitled”, but that, at least, puts the viewer back into a kind of exchange with the author about what the picture could be by supplying that information himself. Images are powerful things. However, in trying to catalogue or explain them, we can greatly reduce that power, even neutralize it. Letting pictures speak for themselves….well, it’s why we make them in the first place, isn’t it?
LOVE, IN SPITE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS GET A LOT OF PRACTICE HATING WHAT THEY HAVE SHOT, failure being, in our thinking, the necessary road to eventual success. As with any art, mastery is initially shaped by misfires, and so shooters spend a lot of time marinating in regret, longing to close the uncloseable gap between the vision of their eye and the fruit of their fingers. This, in turn, means that we are on very, very intimate terms with the pictures that merely “came close”.
But pining over what we believe we muffed, although it seems like the very heart of humility, is the wrong way to get to better pictures. Instead of thinking in terms of “keepers” and “klunkers”, we should realize that there is no completely wrong or right photograph. Even something we seem to have botched contains the germ of an idea we once loved, and even an imperfect execution shows that we were, after all, in search of something, well, worth searching for. Likewise, even our favorite images bear the same bruises as even the most succulent apple, in that there is always something we have left undone, or under-realized.
The Joy Dispenser, 2021
At the risk of sounding like I have attended too many post-graduate Zen classes, making a photographic image is, in itself, an essential good. It’s an act of faith….in our concepts, in our skills, in our evolving sense of truth and worth. In that light, we have many pictures which we claim that we don’t “love” which we should love…in spite. We begin making pictures by saying that some things in the ever-zipping parade of instants that make up our life deserve to be savored, preserved. We continue making them because that initial concept was true, and every salvageable frame that we produce after that starting point proves just how true it was.
And so, just as this image is a balance between what I wish I’d done better and what I actually manage to occasionally do perfectly, your best work is half-ripe, half-rotten fruit (the apple, remember?) We are all, as Cat Stevens wrote, On The Road To Findout. Stop trying to make the perfect picture and keep making the potential picture. Over the long haul, it’s a richer, more satisfying journey by far.
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
THOSE 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
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.
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…”
May 23, 2018 | Categories: Americana, Commentary, Conception | Tags: criticism, Interpretation, Social Media | Leave a comment