By MICHAEL PERKINS
THEY’RE LINE CALLS, COIN TOSSES between success and failure, those thousands of photographs we generate over a lifetime that never quite stray into complete wretchedness or float all the way up to Beloved status. They float languidly in the vast midrange between the delightful and the awful that makes up most of our pictorial output, earning faint praise like “pretty good”, “not bad” or my favorite, “yeah, that’s OK.” They are the pictures that we fall “in like” with.
Sometimes I find it easier to cope with my absolute garbage than with the massive mound of mediocrity that occupies the middle floors of my personal output. At least the photos I took while swinging wildly for the fences show commitment, however misguided. After all in even my worst failures, there is also a trace of my grandest dreams, whereas the thousands of “good enough” shots show neither the wild abandon of going for broke or the grand miracle of high art. They’re just….there. Somebody cue the poet with the line about faint heart n’er winning fair lady, or something high-toned like that.
There are those who might even regard the mushy mediocre middle of their total photographic portfolio as just as worthless as their Total Misses, but I maintain that the stuff in the gooey center of our work files is exactly half-good, as well as half-bad. In fact, that’s the maddening thing about “OK” pictures. They never get where they’re headed.
The image seen here is a prime example of a picture that’s suspended between the goal posts. It’s almost well-composed, as well as almost fluid in dynamic range, almost texturally rich, almost, well a lot of things. It isn’t quite a stinker, but it also certainly isn’t a stunner. And as meh as you see it here, the original, wider shot was even more indecisive, with hot blowouts of the shoreline that were later cropped away and just too much information for a coherent narrative. And yet, I have spent the better part of three weeks trying to remain “in like” with the shot, trying to convince myself that it’s more successful than it is.
Of course, just as is the case with an abject failure, this shot is worth keeping. Because every failure is instructive to some degree, and the fact that I’m able to diagnose what kept the image from being good means I’ve already mined it for any clues on where improvement is needed. It just doesn’t need to be paraded around, that’s all. Plus, if nothing else, middling shots hone our editorial skills, since we have no business posting or boasting every single time we click the shutter.
Speaking of clicks, I recently determined that there have been over 130,000 of them on the camera that took this shot. Where does the time go? I “shutter” to think how many of those snaps added shame fodder to my lifetime hit/miss average. But, oh well. I think of the farmers in the Great Plains in the days of the Dust Bowl, living harvest-to-harvest in an insane state of constant gamble, who, in describing how they summoned the hope to go on, nicknamed themselves the “Next Year People”. When will I deliver on the unrealized promise of all my most mediocre shots? Next year, people.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE DIRTY LITTLE SECRET ABOUT BEING A PARENT is that we all come to terms with the fact that, of course, even though you are not supposed to have a favorite child, you often sorta do. Maybe we don’t so much love one above all the others, but just struggle with the messy process of learning to love each child for very specific reasons. You can’t, officially speaking, choose one over all the rest, but you do ( but you don’t).
And, of course, in any field of artistic endeavor, we also parentally favor some of our works over others. Or, to return to my earlier point, we just love some of them differently. As photographers, we make very fast initial groupings of our images, sorting them quickly into grossly over-simplified “worked” and “didn’t work” piles, as if we were even capable of producing either spotless masterpieces or irredeemably flawed failures. Some of the zillions of pictures we generate never break out of these two polarized winner/loser silos, either being blessed with immediate approval or consigned to permanent dismissal. The fact is, our photographs can easily be broken into four, or eight, or dozens of piles that show a nuanced range from miracle to mire….pictures that almost worked “except for” some little something, or snaps that almost completely missed “except for this one part I really like.” We’d like to believe we live in a two-pile world, where even art is subjected to a nice, clean either/or judgement, but the truth is far more tricky than that.
I once categorized this image as a failure. I no longer feel that way. I cannot explain either reaction. I don’t have to.
Often, in reviewing or re-reviewing or re-re-reviewing the orphan images we originally stuck in the reject pile, we are struck by how foolish our original sorting process was. As with the picture you see here, we are struck, with the luxury of a little time distancing, to evaluate the things with fresh eyes. Shots that were utterly without merit may still be, generally speaking, misses rather than hits. But in finding them again after a prolonged absence, we lose some of the concept or animating spirit of the original concept: details of why we did it can fade a bit, and the picture will sometimes stand either straighter or crooked-er when forced to stand on its own. And in the light of this new viewing, some orphans will find a home, with even the still-bad shots imparting more wisdom about ourselves than they might have in the heat of battle.
The lonely part, for an artist, is when you love one of your “children” in a way that you can’t explain and in which the world can’t share. That love must be unconditional and absolute. You made the thing and you must own it, because you can see a little piece of yourself in it. The orphan gets a home because it needs one.
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.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I’VE BEEN ORGANIZING A GIFT FOR MY SON’S FORTIETH BIRTHDAY, which is an overview of a specific photographic theme spanning the last ten years. A decade is a nice round figure, a handy unit of time for evaluating one’s evolution in various enterprises, and so the exercise has led me to go back the same stretch across my online image postings, but, instead of looking at the entire span of ten years, I became obsessed with throwing out the clutter from exactly ten years ago. I’d like to say it was a pleasant trip down memory lane, but, in fact, I’ve done most of it with one eye closed, all the better to minimize my cringing.
It’s more than sobering to look at the stuff you felt happy enough about to throw onto the interweb just a decade ago, almost like trying to pull off an intimate dance with a total stranger, and not a very good looking one at that. I am not trying to lead the world championship in false modesty when I say that the old delete button was looking quite shopworn when the job was done, and, if anything, I feel that the large pile of photographic detritus at my feet represents me being generous in too many cases where my sentiment overrode my sense.
You are, of course, a little bit alienated from your old self every new time you pick up a camera. Get enough distance between yourself and what you once thought was your “good stuff” and the contrast can knock you off your pins. Chances are, the You of Today sees composition, narrative, exposure and subject matter with a completely different set of priorities than the You of Yesteryear. That is, if you’re lucky. If you still regard your work of ten years ago as “all killer, no filler”, you may have spent the last decade walking in circles. Or you may be the greatest genius in the history of photography, in which case I’d like to become the local chapter president of your fan club.
Me, I’m pledging to re-edit my portfolio with a lot more regularity in the future. It may not be much more pleasant, but I’d rather face several dozens of my biggest misses at a time than legions of the suckers. In the meantime, I have that gift book to finish, and I’d better hurry up about it. If I think about it too long, I might just reduce the tome to a pamphlet and send my kid a coupon for a Happy Meal.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHIC COMPOSITION MAY MATTER MORE than any other single aspect of technical mastery. The godlike power to decide what to include in the frame is the ultimate tool in the making of any photograph. It sets the terms of engagement, stating, merely by what’s been included, this is what we’re talking about today. That makes the photographer a narrator…a storyteller. The rest is all just measurements.
Macro photography, or, as we used to call it, “close-ups” are the purest exercise in compositional choice, because in getting nearer to our subject, we are forced to be aware, in the making of a picture, just how much of the rest of the world we are paring away…whether because it’s distracting, or too busy, or merely because it’s not what our picture is “about”. Macro work also shows, in the clearest possible terms, what happens when too much is left in the frame, and reinforces the same discipline that’s vital in composing a shot at any scale, i.e., including what communicates best, and snipping out the rest. It also becomes a useful introduction to “abstraction”, which is valuable even for people who think they hate that term.
When you abstract something, you are merely pulling it free of its normal contexts and associations. Once you are close enough to your subject, you are working more and more in terms of raw light, patterns, and texture, in a way that makes the familiar unfamiliar. You see compositional elements purely. For example, a piano, as a fully-sized object, registers in the mind as a quite particular thing, whereas magnified detail applied to the arrangement of its inner workings, is an exercise in mechanics, math, the pure arrangement of repetitive motifs. Composition in macro , then, is always great practice for composition in general. When you are zoomed in tight, you must make real choices as to what will make the cut for the final image, and these choices are obvious, and immediately understood. Pull back out for shots taken in the wider world, and that choice-making ability is now more instinctual. There’s a reason so many people say that, in the acquisition of a skill, you should start small. Because little things mean a lot, and the sooner that thinking gets into our pictures, the better tales we tell.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
STREET PHOTOGRAPHY IS A UNIQUE MARRIAGE OF SETTING AND SUBJECTS, that delicate balance of locations and denizens that make streets into neighborhoods. The drama created in such studies is always a thrilling, moment-to-moment improvisation in which small things generate big effects. Incremental changes in the scenario, like waiting for the old man with the dog to walk directly under the deli sign, or framing the sullen teen right next to a reflective window, can be the difference between something that’s merely quaint and something that’s universal. And the more crowded with subjects the frame is in a street shot, the more options there are to weigh. Doing choreography for a lone dancer is not the same thing as blocking out space an entire troupe.
Streets shots are about weighing the importance of several things at once, in opposition to each other rather than as isolated elements. Tensions are set, tightened and released; motives are explored and exploited. In 2021’s cautious re-emergence from our respective quarantine caves, we are not only re-learning the flexing of our own muscles; we are also watching the equivalent adjustment in others. With or without a camera in hand, we are all more deliberate people watchers in this nervous re-entry phase. People are not, at least for right now, mere wallpaper, but active orbiting bodies in little constellations. We are a little more keenly aware, as we venture out, what their personal Great To Be Back moments are. Perhaps, in time, we will go back to our old habit of generally walking past each other, but now, in this careful new world, we are paying a little more attention. And those of us who, through photography, are in the habit of seeing with a little extra intensity will be in for a feast.
As stated before, the more people you decide to include in a street shot, the more choreography there is to fuss over. In the “day-out-with-dad” scenario shown here, I had several stories that all wanted telling at the same time. In some frames shot over the space of a minute (about eight), various players were all contending for star status. In some shots, the father seemed to be guiding the kids and the dog. In a few, the dog’s personality as explorer-at-large seemed to place his energy in charge. In yet more, the young girl seemed to be trying to run things by standing atop the rock on which, in the selected frame, she’s seen leaning. Thus, in the final version, she’s a little more passive, Dad is trying to keep things in balance, and the dog is definitely on point as the overall leader of the expedition.
All versions of this scene had their elements of tension, warmth and humor, and so in choosing a single final rendition, I was neither right or wrong. The joy of the enterprise was in the element of spontaneous creation offered by what was happening upon the stage and amongst the players. I could write the ending so the guy gets the girl or where the cowboy just rides into the sunset, but that part is really unimportant. In street photography, the potential is the attraction. We are only able to extract a single instant to suggest a whole reality, and both the thrill and the terror of that choice, while it’s no walk in the park, is, for some, simply irresistible.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE ABILITY OF A PHOTOGRAPH TO PRETTY MUCH ILLUSTRATE EVERYTHING IN LIFE can tempt shooters to try to do exactly that; to pack a universe of stuff into every frame. In the minds of some of us, the camera is an information-gathering machine, and so, the more information, the better. But if we call to mind the photographs that have affected us most profoundly, we may see that there’s a hierarchy in the way information is presented in many of those uber-keeper photos. Everything in the world is not a number one priority; events and experiences are always ranked higher in importance than some and lower than others. And the photograph that shows too much may actually not communicate anything particularly well. Things need to be chosen and unchosen in order for a picture to breathe.
As a consequence, rather than showing four hundred trees of equal size and detail in a frame, we deputize one or several trees to stand for the entire forest. In any routine edit, we decide to crop out things which are part of the scene but which either don’t, narratively speaking, carry their weight, or, worse, act as distractions. It’s not only all right not to show everything, it’s a really important part of the covenant between artist and audience.
When you leave out some kinds of information, you’re respecting your viewer’s intelligence, since you’re recognizing that you both share a vast store of common experience, some of it so obvious that it can merely be implied and yet understood. As a very simple example, in the image seen here of a young boy running through the woods, his body language conveys all that’s needed for a complete understanding of the scene. Every part of his physical energy advertises the freedom and excitement he is experiencing, even though the picture provides little more than his silhouette and nothing whatever of his features. Would he be any more clearly delineated as a happy young boy if you were to show his smiling face? And as to the surrounding trees; they are, in life, rich in texture, but the prevailing shadow doesn’t keep them from being identified as trees, and so, really, how much better could that work, even if they were all in complete sunlight?
I’m only occasionally an advocate of minimalism for its own sake, mainly because in many cases it’s not the right approach. But over-delivering on information, while creating a thorough “document” of a scene, also has the potential for short-circuiting an image’s impact. As is often the cases, the best rules are the ones that come equipped with tons of exceptions.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CERTAINLY, PHOTOGRAPHY IS PARTLY ABOUT LIGHT, AND EQUIPMENT, AND TECHNICAL MASTERY. However, after all those means are applied, the only determinant of the ends of all our energies comes from human choices. Arguments within the mind of the photographer about what “belongs” in a picture. How to convince the viewer that it belongs. How to apply all the means to make that information compelling, or universal.
It’s knowing what to say “yes” to, but, just as crucially, it’s about being able to say no to every other option, and being prepared to live with your decision. Of course, deciding what to put in an image is not, literally, a matter of life and death, as a choice of career, mate, or philosophy might be, but it is a very visual demonstration of what choice entails. Because, when you choose something, in a picture or in a life path, you automatically unchoose everything else. There is no way, in art in life in general, to have it all.
But better voices, voices far wiser than mine, have already spoken brilliantly of this process. One, in particular, has been considered by many to be the final word on the subject, so today it serves as my own picture’s caption:
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE BIGGEST BENEFITS I’ve derived by overseeing this forum over the past nine years has been the great gift of being able to distance myself from my earlier work, to get far enough away from techniques I once embraced to regard them with a mixture of bemusement and horror. The shorthand for this sensation is a variant on the phrase “what was I thinking?”
The important thing is not to either completely repudiate or uniformly defend earlier versions of one’s photographic output, but, in evaluating each piece separately, to find that some work shows a shift in perspective, an evolution in the way of doing things. Absolute consistency over years is not only unlikely but unhealthy. Art can’t breathe in a vacuum.
Lately, in reviewing some images shot within the last decade, I have run head-on into a huge clutch of pictures that, although they may have been pretty balanced in the master shots, were absolutely overwrought in post-processing. It wasn’t a case of putting lipstick on a pig, but of slathering it onto a fairly attractive woman, or maybe like the cartoonist who had the habit of ending the sentences in every one of his dialog balloons with TWO exclamation points, regardless of the content. In many of these shots I seemed on some kind of quest for the ultimate rendering of detail, coupled with a love of the most extreme contrasting and color saturation. HDR was where I committed my gravest sins but I was gooping up pictures in other processes as well. For some reason, I was proceeding as if there were no image that could not be “improved” simply by tinkering a little longer with it. The results were, shall we say, uneven.
Look at the way I processed a simple coastal vista from a trip I made to Monterey, California in 2012 (see top image). Man, you can count every damn grain of sand on that beach, cantcha? And how about all that stone texture, eh? And then there are the clouds, which, in my heavy-handed treatment, were transformed from fluffy accents to signs of impending doom. Whole thing appears a bit grim, as if the apocalypse is definitely coming any second, and, golly ned, kids, you’d better run for it. The second, dialed-back version from this year allows for a slight tweak in color balances and luminescence, but then it’s hands off the steering wheel. Which place would you rather head to for a relaxing holiday? One scene actually appears somewhat inviting, while the other is like El Greco after an evening of far too much wine.
Sometimes I think that photography, rather than being labeled a “profession” or a “hobby”, should be referred to as a “practice”, since the constant addition and subtraction of skills and experience is similar to what a doctor tries to do. Fortunately, no one died as a result of my artistic malpractice, although I feel a little sick myself facing up to my shortcomings. But on we go. I may not, in fact, be able to tell you, years later, what I was thinking during earlier versions of myself. I only hope I was thinking at all, and that the needle has moved just a little, from there to here.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
DURING MY CAREER IN RADIO, I lost count of how many times I heard people react to recordings of their voice with the remark, “that doesn’t even sound like me”. The statement is funny because it’s both true and false. As a series of stored electromagnetic signals that are a scientific record of sound, the tape certainly recreates the original noises we make: and yet our inner version of ourself seems distorted, as if we’re looking in a funhouse mirror. That can’t be us. Fact is, we’re often the world’s worst authority on what we are or are not, something that’s measured by the things we create.
Stay with me.
The current Great Hibernation that we’re all enduring is a great opportunity to clean house, to get to those dreaded “someday” lists that somehow always involve getting rid of things, of paring down. For photographers, this can involve finally curating old online images (not originals), a process which, like hearing our recorded voices, introduces us to versions of ourselves that we no longer recognize. Put enough distance between yourself and a picture you made a while ago and you can actually forget what it was about the thing that seemed a good idea at the time. And when you become estranged from an idea, it’s tough to love it enough to keep it around. Delete.
Of course, there are the other cases, in which you can clearly recall what you were after, and how, sadly, the result differs greatly from your “vision”. I don’t know which is worse, not recognizing your original intention or recognizing it all too well and wanting to distance yourself from it. Delete.
Some images are orphans. You posted them, you tagged them, you continued to love them, but no one else wanted to come to the party. “They” didn’t get it because….why? A million reasons. Whatever the missed connection was due to, these fatherless kiddos aren’t your best work. Delete.
There are also special circles of my own private hell for “lipstick on a pig” pictures. You know the ones. They’re inadequate or ill-conceived, but you are convinced that by torturing them into new versions of themselves with apps or software (see above, gulp), you can somehow make up for the fact that you blew the master image. That’s not just putting lipstick on a pig, that’s telling yourself that the pig is actually Sophia Loren. Delete.
There is actually an upside to this process. With all the chaff you will also review all the wheat, occasionally astonishing yourself at how lucky/persistent/prescient you were. This is truly an investment in hope, since, it stands to reason, if you could mine gold once, you might, just might be able to do it again. Taken in full, a healthy and brutal review of past sights and other blights is as valuable as going out today to shoot all new stuff. More valuable, actually, because everything you shoot today is a by-product of all the keepers and weepers that went before. Understanding who you were informs who you will be. And while it’s humbling to find that you’re not always perfect, it’s a genuine comfort to know that sometimes you ring the bell.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I MAY NOT BE PHOTOGRAPHER ENOUGH TO FOOL THE HUMAN EYE, but on a good day, I can apparently con Photos for Mac. I know this because I caught the program using its own “logic” to arrange images into categories for which, truly, they don’t qualify. One such category is “panoramas”, a folder which Photos has chocked with pictures that were not made either with a true panoramic camera or a stitch-up phone app, but merely by cropping larger shots. The thing is, such clipped art work as panoramas because of what they ask of the viewer’s eye.
Most of my landscapes, in town or out in the country, are shot with a 24mm f/2.8 wide-angle, which is my go-to for urban work. It adds little in the way of barrel distortion if you aim it right, and allows for very inclusive framing when you’re in cramped quarters (lower Manhattan, I’m talking to you). It’s also as sharp as a diamond, and so, at its sweet spot of efficiency (around f/5.6) it’s a snap to focus manually. It’s a sophisticated lens that performs almost as easily as a point-and-shoot, and even though landscapes shot with it will result in a lot of excess detail, this one lens will do nearly 100% of what I need on an average day. And since there’ll often be way too much info in the landscapes, a-cropping I will go.
Panos are often tiresome because there simply aren’t a lot of linear subjects that are uniformly fascinating from left-to-right. I mean, if you’re bent on having all of General Grant’s 103rd regiment muster up in front of you, or if you’re trying to drink in all the delicious detail along the Cote D’Azur, it can be worth the extra effort. But this is me confessing that most of the shots that my Mac calls “panos” depict decisions made after the shutter snap, and only then because most of the useful visual info in the shot turned out to be linear in nature. I don’t intentionally head out of a morning to “do a pano”, and, in making landscape shots with other objectives in mind, I often don’t see, in the moment, the super-wide image lurking within the greater one. But on days when the camera gods are in a good mood, you find that, even in paring away half of your original, you’ve actually rescued something workable inside your master frame.
In the two examples seen here, the contrast is fairly obvious. The human activity, the line of the boats and, beyond, the skyline of the Brooklyn shore seem to be primarily inviting the eye into a left-to-right reading of the image, whereas crowding the frame with extraneous structures, more boardwalk lumber, or extra sky really saps the picture of any impact it might potentially have, and so, out come the scissors. I also believe that giving the eye more stuff to process means it will do some of it badly. Just as a portrait is usually made more effective by framing its subject mid-waist to head only, so do landscapes often benefit from cutting off their top and bottom thirds, depending on the image. I’m not one of those faux purists who believe you’ve “cheated” by cropping a picture after it’s made. I believe that resizing the frame is part of the making, albeit a part that takes place after the click.
So, yes, my trusty wide-angle is, in most cases, also my trusty makeshift pano lens. I’ve done the same thing with fisheyes, cropping them to highlight the super-wide center of a shot to the exclusion of the extreme bends at the edges. In many such cases, I am trending toward carrying less and less glass with me and getting more and more flexibility out of what I do take along, a development applauded by my aging neck and shoulders. It may be true that you need to suffer to be beautiful, but in the name of a healthy spine, I’m going to keep testing that theory.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS PHOTOGRAPHERS, WE ALL HAVE THEM, whether we parade them defiantly or sequester them in locked drawers. “They” are our Orphan Images, the photos that never quite made it to the finals. Our strange little camera creatures, the ones that fall outside every arbitrary category of success. Our guilty pleasures. Or, in most cases, concepts that Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time.
We’ve written about these underloved ones before here in The Normal Eye, these pictures that may not even be technical failures but which somehow qualify as….odd. So. Very. Odd. And still I come back to the subject because there is something addictive about even our mistakes. Maybe especially our mistakes.
Many of them frustrate us. The compositions that didn’t quite sell our idea. The light that failed. The idea we didn’t take quite far enough. Did I mention bad light?
Strangely, we harbor a special warmth toward our orphans. We may even convince ourselves that they really are “great”. Or that they’re misunderstood, which means that they somehow failed to make themselves understood. Sometimes an idea that comes close, but still comes up short, inspires a bittersweet affection in us. They are the kids that got cut from Little League at the last second. We, or the pictures, tried so very hard. To be in the presence of greatness is breathtaking, while being in the presence of almost-greatness is often heartbreaking.
After you’ve been shooting for a while, you seldom take any picture without some kind of basic intention. And that means that the resulting image can’t really stand alone anymore. It’s always linked, and contrasted, with the thing we wish we had done. If we missed by a mile, we can accept that perfection is a journey and be a bit philosophical about the whole thing. Missing by inches…well, that’s another thing entirely.
I don’t know why I like this picture. I mean, I understand completely the mix of components I was going for. And yet, I can’t defend it vigorously to anyone else. I know it’s…off. But not far enough off to land in the junk bin. Just off enough to drive me a little bit crazy.
Ella Fitzgerald once said that the only thing that’s better than singing is more singing. And I guess I feel the same about making pictures. Whatever’s wrong with your photos can, or might, be cured by your very next one. Or not. That’s the tantalizing, and maddening part of the photographic learning curve. It’s complicated further by the fact that you’re not merely trying to master your gear, but yourself. Seeing how very close you came to being the best you is tough. But most failures are not outright flops but qualified successes, and that little tweak in how we perceive our imperfect work is the only thing that also makes the whole deal worthwhile.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS, THE SOCIAL-MEDIA EQUIVALENT OF SMACKING SOMEONE ON THE BACK and saying “Attaboy” is affixing the remark “Great capture!” to your “like” of another person’s images. This is meant to be a compliment, but I think it is misapplied. Of course, on one level, I admit that carping about one little word constitutes world-class nitpicking on my part. On the other hand, I think we need to think critically about what happens in the making of an effective picture. It’s an active, rather than passive, process.
In one sense, a camera does, in fact, “capture” a scene, snatching a millionth of a minute from its place in the steady flow of time. But seldom does a golden moment or lovely subject present its best self to us, ready to be harvested, requiring only that we lower our butterfly net. Photography is a much more deliberate art than that. In fact, we often happen upon images of things that are not yet “ready for their close-up”, in that the first way we see them may not be the best way for us to show them to others. Long before the snap of the shutter, we select our angle, our composition, our light, and even reject all of those choices and make them all over again. We are carefully crafting the best way to reveal something….not merely happening by and passively recording it.
In this spirit, the word “capture” simply isn’t strong enough, as it implies little more than luck in the production of a great photograph. In fact it is really describing a snapshot, in which something very great may have been gathered, but without much in the way of effort. It’s like complimenting someone on catching a baseball no one was expected to catch, a celebration of good fortune rather than skill. Photographs aren’t made merely by grabbing whatever the camera is pointed at: they’re made by a selective process of saying “yes” to some elements by including them in the frame and then reaffirming those elements even further by saying “no” to many other elements that might otherwise clutter or complicate the communication between image and viewer.
Ken Rockwell, a pro photographer whose www.kenrockwell,com site also functions as an online clearing house of technical information on the specs of various camera manufacturers, occasionally steps away from his role as Lord High Adjudicator of gear and reminds his readers of the true essentials of their art. In these random pep talks he will often insist that, in the end, nothing….no lens, no camera, no shiny new toy.. can supplant the human equation in the making of pictures. One of his best such sermons illustrates (far better than your humble author can), just what an “on purpose” process is afoot in the best pictures, as in this paragraph, where he discusses the difference between composition and the mere act of framing:
“Composition is the organization of elements within a frame that leads to the strongest, clearest, cleanest, simplest, most well-balanced and therefore best picture. The best composition is the strongest way of seeing a subject. Framing is what you do by zooming in and out, by moving the camera up and down and left and right, and by rotating it to any angle, including vertical and horizontal. Framing has almost nothing to do with composition, but sadly, few photographers realize this. Framing can’t do much of anything to change the relationships between objects. Framing is easy. One usually can frame a picture after it’s shot by cropping. Composition is very difficult. Composition is what makes or doesn’t make a picture. Composition is the organization of elements in the picture in relation to the other elements…..”
Nothing, of course, will ever eradicate all the “great capture” salutes from the interweb, and maybe we should just stipulate that a compliment is a compliment. But I love to emphasize, since it is so important, that what you all do in the creation of wonderful images is purposeful, not random, that great pictures seldom just jump into your camera. When a composition is eloquent, it is usually a photographer, and not a camera, who has given it voice.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN THE PRESENT PHOTOGRAPHIC ERA, the default frame for composition is, with some notable exceptions, a rectangle, the 3-to-2 ratio that is the descendant of Oscar Barnack’s first 35mm Leicas of the late 1920’s. Most of us have been taught to automatically compose in this format, a hard-wired habit that informs our entire concept of how to fill a frame. The “notable exceptions” I refer to are the square films that have accompanied the return of instant photography, the lomography movement with its square-framed analog film formats, and, by virtue of a built-in app choice, the mobile phone. Strangely, some of the most sophisticated cameras on the market do not allow you to shoot an original square image: the shot must be captured in a 35mm equivalent and cropped later. But that’s a rant for another day.
The thing is, if you don’t typically investigate square composition, you are robbing yourself of an important tool, or, more specifically, you are allowing yourself to always see subjects in the same “frame” of mind. There are distinct advantages to creating a square composition, not the least of which is that it forces the viewer to take in your picture’s information in a distinct way. While shots that are wider than tall are marvelous for any number of reasons, they do, in effect, invite the viewer to scan an image linearly, that is, to look left to right and back again. By contrast, the square reinforces its equal dimensions, almost forcing the eye into a continuously circular sweep of the contents. I hear people complain that a square just “doesn’t give me enough room to get everything in”: however, I would counter that argument by contending that, in many 3/2 compositions, there is a wealth of visual information that not only is not needed, but actively distracts the eye from the most interesting parts of the photograph. Think of a glass of ice tea that, over time, actually has more volume in it, due to melted ice, than was originally poured into the glass. More liquid, but a greatly diluted flavor.
The problem is not that many square images aren’t being made…far from it. It’s that they are, in many cases, being re-made from rectangular originals, in the editing process. We have to shoot wide and edit square. But therein may lie the best way for us to start seeing what a square composition can do, not merely to define the space of a picture, but to invite the viewer into it more efficiently. And it’s easy and cheap to do it.
Try this: select a series of wide master shots that you feel fairly strongly about, dupe work copies of them, and then crop new compositions within the copies. Junk the ones that don’t work and do as many re-takes as you see fit. Did any of the cropped images emerge as stronger without all that extra stuff you originally felt you had to include? And even if they did not, that’s also a good thing. The mere fact that you’ve begun to intentionally look for pictures within pictures means you’ve entered a new phase of your vision as a photographer. We’re certainly used to thinking of pictures that “came out pretty good’ as final or complete, but it’s a good thing to think of them instead as workable drafts. In the wider shot seen ay top, I successfully conveyed that people were stepping onto the roof of the Met museum in NYC, but I also got a lot of things in the shot that aren’t necessary to the telling of that story. The main tellers in the picture are the two women, who, like us, have just arrived. They are our surrogates or guides. Cropping actually makes the red of the sign in front of one of the women cry for your attention, guiding you to the women even as it partly conceals one of them. Additionally, the same top to bottom space that they occupy also shows part of the skyline that borders Central Park. The front to back scale of the shot says “on the roof, in the city”, at some distance.”
So judge for yourselves, as you would with your own pictures. Did anything I took away in cropping diminish the impact of the picture? Does the lower frame now feel open, cramped, or, in Goldilocks fashion, about right? Is there an appropriate emotional distance from the subject, or a welcome intimacy with it? Is there, in short, an overall net gain for the narrative power of the image once it’s been cropped? And most importantly, even if this experiment fails (with the wider picture still being stronger), haven’t I already begun to see every picture in at least two fundamentally different ways? New ways of seeing are among the most powerful tools in a photographer’s kit. The world of cameras may indeed default to a rectangle, but that doesn’t mean our brains need to follow suit.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
A Failed Harvest.
The Fish That Got Away.
I Had It, But I Lost It.
Mistakes Were Made.
However you term episodes of photographic failure…..I mean, complete, utter freaking camera-borne defeat, two things are true.
It does happen.
And it will happen to you.
Not that many of us want to admit it, mind you. In an age in which, on any given photo day, we almost always bring back some kind of technically complete image, it’s easy to confuse any product with a successful one. Yeah, it’s a picture. But that doesn’t make it a good picture.
In the old days, there were was a more dramatic line between success and failure, since failure usually meant no picture at all. Underexposed, unrecognizable blobs. Masses of color that, coherence-wise, added up to nothing. Not so in our current era, in which it’s much more likely that the resulting image is, for lack of a better term, usable. Factor in increasingly facile repair tools and editing processes, and that number of “acceptables” climbs even further.
But you know when a picture has what it takes, and to what extent you’ve bent the rules of editorial judegment with one, even going so far as to talking yourself into thinking it’s better than it really is. That’s the seductive power of digital, in that it brings even our worst work close to the passable mark, making it harder to disown our “kids” than it was in the day when a lousy picture was more irretrievably bad, that is, beyond intervention. But it’s our very ability to intervene that can convince us that the shot was worth intervening over, and that’s frequently just not true.
And so there will be bupkis days. We walk out boldly. We are equipped. We are artistically hungry. We are experienced and trained. We know what we want.
And yet we bring back nothing.
Never forget that the ability to know that you missed the mark (even mightily) is the most valuable skill you will ever develop as a photographer. The strength to say “no” to yourself evolves slowly. In some of us, it never evolves at all. But we should thank Camera God for it, and, by extension, thank the same God for the demonstrably bad photos we are likely to make from time to time. Because if we can’t tell excellent from excrement in our own work, the game really is up. That’s why I am always banging on about loving your mistakes, because finally, they are your best teachers. It ain’t fun to be around them, but, then again, as you recall your most astute mentors, how many of them were a groove to hang with? Whatever. For photography’s sake, we all need to become comfortable with dumping the occasional day’s work in the garbage. Because nothing converts garbage into gorgeous other than hard, unsentimental work. There never has been any other shortcut and there never will be. Or to frame it in food terms (and eventually I always do), consider software and such as sauce. It’s tasty, but it ain’t no substitute for steak.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT MIGHT BE SAFELY SAID THAT THERE IS NO SUCH THING as a photograph that “doesn’t count”. There are, however, some whose purpose is not immediately apparent.
Photographers always intend to shoot something important, or compelling, or groundbreaking, producing images that have, in the eyes of the world, an obvious value or merit. And then there are the majority of the pictures we make, many of which are considered by others, as well as ourselves, as non-essential, trivial. But how do you get to the skill level needed to produce masterpieces if you don’t first produce many more failures? This may mean shooting photos that “don’t mean anything”, although that’s an odd way to describe one’s creative apprenticeship process. Everyone accepts that a young blacksmith will botch his first dozen projects on the way to ultimate artistry. Photography, on the other hand, is regarded by some to be as easy as raising your arm and plucking an apple off a tree. We strangely believe that some kind of beginner’s luck, even beginner’s excellence, ought to be automatic. Hey, it was a nice day. He had a full breakfast and a good camera. So great pictures should follow, right?
The Normal Eye picks up additional subscribers all the time (thank you) and so I believe it’s important, since this forum is about a journey, to occasionally re-emphasize the value of making a whole lot of inconsequential pictures on the road to the keepers. Learn, if you don’t already know it, the value of shooting on days when “there’s nothing to shoot” or when you are really forcing yourself to take the 4,532nd image of a place you’ve visited dozens of times. Great subjects don’t just appear: we all can’t fly to Paris on a whim. Often there is just the park down the street, a part of the back yard, the junk clustered on top of your desk. And a camera. And, hopefully, some little something that’s been added to your eye or technique that wasn’t there the last time you had to shoot pictures of boring stuff. The batters with the best averages still miss the ball most of the time. The best hunters can sometimes trudge home empty-handed. And every photographer has only one tool to bridge the gap between okay and amazing shots, and that’s to keep clicking away. At the stuff that don’t matter. On the days when you’re barely stifling a yawn. With the wrong camera, the worse light, the only lens you remembered to bring. Or, in the case of the above shot, during your twentieth year of walking through a particular park.
Photography is never an ideal situation. Something will be out of round. Some condition will be inhospitable. And there will often be a sense that “this isn’t the moment”. But here’s the deal: a better one isn’t coming. What is coming is a series of repeated exercises right out of Groundhog Day. Same day, different pictures. Maybe. Maybe not, but, still, maybe.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SHOOT ENOUGH PHOTOGRAPHS AND YOU’LL ESTABLISH SOME KIND OF STANDARD of acceptability for your images….the inevitable “keeper” and “failure” piles by which we measure our successes (or lack thereof).
Now, we could fill pages with reflections on just how rational we all are (or aren’t) when it comes to editing ourselves. It’s a learned skill, one that’s practically a religion to some and a virtually unknown process to others. Be that as it may. Let’s assume for the purposes of this exercise that we are all honest, conscientious and humble when it comes to dividing our pictures into wins and losses. Even granting us all that wisdom, we are often less expert about whether a photograph is “worthy” than we think we are. You’d think that no one would know whether we took a bad image that we ourselves. But you’d be wrong, and often, wrong by a country mile.
Just as we are never so purely objective that we can be certain that we’ve generated a masterpiece, we can be just as unreliable in declaring our duds. I was reminded of that recently.
I have a lot of reasons to regard a given picture as “failed”. Some have to do with their effectiveness as narratives. Some I disdain because they’re nothing more than the faithful execution of a flawed idea. But the pictures of mine that the waste can catches the most of are simple technical botches….pure errors in doing. I’m old enough to hold certain rules of composition, exposure or focus as sacred, and I’m quick to dump any image that contravenes those laws.
That’s why the picture you see here was originally something I had intended to hide from the mother of the manic young man in the foreground. I had attempted, one afternoon, to use a manual focus lens to track four very energetic boys, and in one shot their ringleader had made a sudden lunge at the camera that threw him into blur. Seemed like a simple call. I had blown the shot, and I was naturally eager to show his folks only my best work.
But the impact of the picture on the boy’s family was much more positive. Blurry or not, the picture captured something very true about the boy. Call it zest, enthusiasm, even a little craziness, but this frame was, to them, more “like him” than many of the more conventional shots I had originally chosen to show them. The real-ness of his face had, for his family, redeemed the purely operational imperfection that so offended me. To put it another way, my “wait, I can do it better” was their “this is fine just as it is.” Sadly, it was my wife who brought me to my senses and convinced me to move it to the “keeper” pile.
Which circles back to my first point. None of us absolutely know what our best pictures are. We do absolutely know the ones that connect to various audiences, but that may be a completely different pile of images from the ones we label as “right”. Passing or failing a photo largely on technical grounds would, over history, disqualify many of the most important pictures ever made. We have all emotionally loved things that our logical minds might regard as having fallen short. But, in photography as in all other arts, we’re often fortunate that logic is not the sole yardstick.
I OFTEN FEEL THAT HABIT IS THE GREATEST POTENTIAL THREAT to the creative process. Once an artist approaches a new project through the comfort of his accumulated routines, he’s well on the road to mediocrity. If you find yourself saying things like “I always do” or “I typically use”…. you’re saying, in effect, that you’ve learned everything you need to learn in terms of your art. You already have all the ingredients for success. The ideal exposure. The perfect lens. The optimum technique. The Lost Ark…
And, if a kind of self-satisfied inertia is death-on-toast for artistic growth, then the most valuable tool in a photographer’s goodie bag is the ability to archive and curate his own work…..to keep a solid, traceable time line that clearly shows the evolution of his approach…..including the degree to which that approach has either moved along or stood still. That means not only hanging on to many of your worst pictures but also re-evaluating your best ones…..since your first judgement calls on both kinds of images will often be subject to change. Certainly there are photographs that are so clearly wonderful or wretched that your opinion of them won’t change over time. But they constitute the minority of your work. Everything in that vast middle ground between agony and ecstasy is a rich source of self-re-evaluation.
Revisiting old shoots doesn’t always yield hidden treasures. Sometimes the shot you thought was best from a certain day was best. But there may be only a hair’s-breadth of difference between the winners and the also-rans, and, at least in my own experience, the also-rans are where all the education is. For example, in the image seen here of my wife taken almost ten years ago and re-examined recently, I know two new things: first, I now know precisely why, at the time, I thought it was the worst of a ten-frame burst. Second, at this stage, I realize that it’s actually a lot closer to what I currently find essential about Marian’s face than the shot I formerly regarded as the “keeper”. I’m just that different in under a decade.
As you grow as a photographer, you will revise nearly every “must” or “never” in your belief system, from composition to focus and beyond. As life molds you, it will likewise mold the ways you see and comment on that life. An archive of your work, warts and all, is the most valuable resource you can consult to trace that journey, and it will nourish and inform every picture you make from here on.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I CALL IT NO–FUNDAY, the painful exercise of poring over photographs that I once considered “keepers” and now must reluctantly re-classify as “obviously, I’m an idiot.” For any photographer, self-editing one’s output is just the kind of humiliation one needs to keep on shooting, if only to put greater distance between one’s self and one’s yester-duds.
To make the shame of disowning my photographic spawn even worse, I find that, more often than not, technical failure is usually not the reason I’m lunging for the delete button: it’s the weakness of the conception, a basic lifelessness or lack of impact that far outweighs any errors in exposure, lighting, even composition. In other words, my worst pictures are, by and large, bad because they are well-executed renditions of measly ideas.
In my mental filing cabinet, I refer to these images under the acronym SLIGIATT, or Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time. The image above is a perfect example. This shot, taken inside the underbelly of a WWII bomber, presented a ton of lighting challenges, but I spent so much time tweaking this aspect of it that I neglected to notice that there just isn’t a picture here. It tells no story. It explains nothing. It’s just an incomprehensible jumble of old equipment which lets the eye wander all over the frame, only to land on…..well, what exactly? But, boy howdy, it is well-lit.
SLIGIATT photos are, of course, necessary. You have to take all the wrong pictures to teach yourself how to create the good ones. And mere technical prowess can, for a time, resemble quality of a sort. But technique is merely craft, and can be had rather easily. The art part comes in when you’re lucky enough to also build a soul into a machine. As Frankenstein figured out, that’s the difference between being God and playing God.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY DEMONSTRATED, EARLY IN ITS HISTORY, that, despite the assumption that it was merely a recording device, it regarded “reality” as….overrated. Since those dawning daguerreotype days, it has made every attempt possible to distort, lie about, or improve upon the actual world. There is no “real” in a photograph, only an arrangement between shooter and viewer, who, together, decide what the truth is.
So-called street photography is rife with what I call “reassigned value” when it comes to the depiction of people. Obviously, the heart of “street” is the raw observation of human stories as the photographer sees them, tight little tales of endeavor, adventure…even tragedy. However, the nature of the artist is not to merely document but also to interpret: he may use the camera to freeze the basic facts of a scene, but he will inevitably re-assign values to every part of it, from the players to the props. He becomes, in effect, a stage manager in the production of a small play.
In the above image you can see an example of this process. The man sitting at his assigned post at a museum gallery began as a simple visual record, but I obviously didn’t let the matter end there. Everything from the selective desaturation of color to the partial softening of focus is used to suggest more than what would be given in just a literal snap.
So what is the true nature of the man at the podium? Is he wistfully gazing out the distant window, or merely daydreaming? Is he regretful, or does he just suffer from sore feet? Is he chronically bored, or has his head in fact turned just because a patron asked him the direction of the restroom? And, most importantly, how can you creatively alter the perception of this (or any) scene merely by dealing the cards of technique in a slightly different shuffle?
Photographers traffic in the technical measure of the real, certainly. But they’re not chained to it. The bonds are only as steadfast as the limit of our imagination, or the terms of the dialogue we want with the world at large.