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.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE ARE CERTAINLY MANY MORE PICTURES BEING TAKEN than there are great pictures taken. That’s as it should be. Anything at which you wish to be excellent only comes about once you’ve learned what not to do, and that means lots of errors, lots of images that you feel compelled to destroy almost as quickly as you’ve created them. You must, must, must, take all the bad pictures right alongside the good ones. At first, the garbage will outnumber the groceries.
And then, some day, it doesn’t.
I am an A.B.S. (Always Be Shooting) shooter. I mean, I make myself at least try to make a picture every….single…day. No excuses, no regrets, no exceptions. Reason? I simply don’t know (and neither do you) where the good pictures are going to come from. For me to give myself permission not to try on a given day means I am risking that one of those potentially golden pictures will never be born. Period period period.
In a way, I often think photo technique guides from years gone by had things backwards. That is, they often made suggestions of great opportunities to take great pictures. You know the list: at a party: on a vacation: to capture special moments with loved ones, etc., etc. However, none of these traditional “how-to” books included a category called “just for the hell of it”, “why not?”, or, in the digital era, “whattya got to lose? You’re shooting for free!” These days, there are virtually no barriers to making as many pictures as you want, quickly, and with more options for control and creativity, both before and after the shutter click. So that old “ideas” list needs to be re-thought.
To my thinking, here’s the one (yes, I said ONE) suggestion for making pictures, the only one that matters:
TAKE THE SHOT ANYWAY.
And to purify your thinking, here’s my larger list, that of the most commonly used excuses not to shoot. You know ’em. You’ve used ’em. And by doing so, you’ve likely blown the chance at a great picture. Or not. You won’t know, because you didn’t TAKE THE SHOT ANYWAY. Here are the excuses, in all their shameful glory:
I haven’t got the right lens/camera/gear. There’s not enough light. I don’t do these kinds of pictures well. I don’t have my “real” camera. There’s nothing to take a picture “of”. Everyone takes a picture of this. I’ll do it later. It probably won’t be any good. There are too many people in the picture. There isn’t enough time.
Train yourself to repeat take the shot anyway, like a mantra, whenever any of these alibis spring into your head. Speed up your learning curve. Court the uncertain. Roll the dice. Harvest order from chaos. Stop waiting for your shot, your perfect day, your ideal opportunity.
Take the shot. Anyway.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
JOHANNES GUTTENBURG, THE MAN WHO DEVELOPED THE FIRST PRACTICAL SYSTEM FOR MOVABLE TYPE, is also said to have invented a kind of periscope, the better to peer over the teeming throngs at the local virgintennial festival. And while there is no record of what he was trying to see (or, more importantly, if he actually did see it), the longing to extend one’s vision around blind corners is one of the tantalizing mysteries of photography. The fact that we can’t make that 45-degree turn infuses many an image with a delicious kind of suspense.
Often when we compose a photo we imply the existence of a certain hidden something that the still image will forever shield from our detection. We photograph shadows that have no progenitors, streets that are halfway concealed by our shooting angle, and, always, the continuation of patterns and dramas that continue outside the boundaries of the frame. That frame has to be drawn somewhere, after all, and no matter how complete we attempt to make our stories within it, the imagination wants to stray toward whatever was “composed out” of the final product.
And therein lies one of the superb teases of our art. We can select scenes that deliberately torture the eye by denying access to What’s Over That Way or Where Does That Lead. We can abruptly rob the eye of the visual payoff for a conundrum that we ourselves have created. We can lie, cheat and steal. That is, I mean, who says you have to play fair with your viewer? Oh, you want me to tell you everything about this picture? Nuts. Figure it out yourself. Was it Colonel Mustard with a candlestick in the study, or….?
The master shot of the above image was a fairly typical out-the-window view from a hotel room, and originally ran a lot wider. Then it occurred to me that I could almost see something between the two buildings, and I re-cropped to make that “almost” the main part of the picture. Remaking the landscape view into a square introduced a little claustrophobia into the process, forcing the view exactly where I wanted it to hit. And finally, I desaturated all the colors in the shot except the orange of the sodium street lamps to amp up the glow in the aperture between the buildings.
I’m not suggesting that you intentionally make pictures with the sole purpose of messing with people’s minds. But, hee hee, you totally can. What’s around the corner? What’s up the street, beyond the curtain, just out of frame? Your picture, your game, your intentions. Take your audience’s eyes where you want them, and leave them there….between one choice and another.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT WASN’T LONG AFTER THE INTRODUCTION OF PHOTOGRAPHY that one of the biggest and most durable myths about the new art was launched to generally unquestioning acceptance. The line “the camera doesn’t lie” attached itself to the popular imagination with what seemed the purest of industrial-age logic. Photographs were, to the 19th-century mind, a flawless record of reality, a scientifically reliable registration of light and shadow. And yet the only thing that moved as quickly as photography itself was the race to use the camera to deliberately create illusion, and, eventually, to serve the twin fibbing mills of propaganda and advertising. The camera, it turned out, not only could lie, but did do so, frequently and indetectably.
Later, as photojournalism came into its own, the “doesn’t lie” myth seemed to drape news coverage in some holy mantle of trustworthiness, as if every cameraman were somehow magically neutral in the way he shot an event. This, in spite of the obvious fact that, merely by changing composition, exposure, or processing, the photographer could alter his image’s impact…..its ability to, in effect, transmit “truth”. Certainly, outright fakery got better and better, but, even without deliberately trying to falsify facts, the news photographer still had his own personal eye, an eye which could easily add bias to a seemingly straightforward picture. Did this proclivity make his pictures “lies”?
As a point of discussion, consider the above photo, which is, fundamentally, a document of part of an actual event. But what can really be learned from what’s in the frame? Are there thousands at this rally, or do the attendees shown here constitute the entire turnout? Are all those on hand peaceful and calm, or have I merely turned my lens away from others, immediately adjacent, who may be screaming or gesturing in anger? And how about my use of selective focus with the girl in pink? Am I simply calling attention to her face, the colors in her outfit, her sign, her physical posture… or am I trying to make her argument for her by using blur to make everyone else seem less important? Am I an artist, a reporter, a liar, or all three?
Here’s the thing: since I don’t make my living as a journalist, I can choose any or all of those three job titles without fear of conflict. I work only for myself, so I make no claim for the neutrality of my coverage of anything, including landscapes, still lifes and portraits. I likewise make no guarantees of objectivity in what I regard as an art. Only the observer can decide whether the camera, or I, have “lied”. We repeat this mantra frequently, but it bears clear emphasis: photographs are not (mere) reality. Never were, never can be.
Good thing or bad? You literally take that determination into your own hands.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE ABILITY OF EVERY PHOTOGRAPHER, EVERYWHERE, TO INSTANTLY SHARE any part of his or her output with the world is both a blessing and curse. The “blessing” part’s easy to understand. Breaking down the barriers to publication of ideas that have separated us all from each other throughout time…well, that’s a very heady thing. Pictures can now transmit commentary at nearly the speed of thought, establishing linkages and narratives that have the potential to shape history.
Then there’s the “curse” part, in which this very same technology carries with it the potential for unlimited treachery and mischief. Who says what pictures can be seen…when, and by whom? Without supervisory curation or any kind of global uber-editor, photography can just be a visual torrent of garbage, or banality, or worse. Obviously, we have had to navigate some very tricky waters as both the blessing and curse elements of modern photography wrestle for supremacy.
What has happened for, good or ill, is that we are all, suddenly, tasked with being our own editors, asked to perform a skill that is very difficult to bring off with any honesty. You’d think that, after years of taking thousands of pictures, most of us would have a higher yield of excellence from all that work, but I have found that, at least for myself, the opposite is proving true. The more I shoot, the fewer of all those shots strike me as extraordinary. I thought that practice would indeed make perfect, or that, at least, I’d come closer to the mark more often, the more images I cranked off. But that hasn’t happened.
Your skills accelerate over time, certainly; but so do your standards. In fact, any really honest self-editing journey will mean you are less and less satisfied with the same pictures, today, that, just yesterday, you would have thought your best work. You start to refuse to cut certain marginal pictures a break; you stop grading yourself on the curve.
Most importantly, you have been doing this just long enough to realize how very long the journey to mastery will be. Not just control of the mechanics of a camera, although that certainly takes time. No, we’re talking about learning to tame the wild horse of one’s own undisciplined vision, something that, over a lifetime, is hardly begun. Our moon landings come to look to us like baby steps.
Becoming one’s own editor means that, through the years, you’re liable to view one of your “greatest hits” from yesteryear and be able, sadly, to see the huge gulf between what you were trying to do and what you actually accomplished. I was horrified, a few years ago, to learn that my father, at some point, had destroyed the paintings he had made when he was in college. I had grown up with those images and thought them powerful, but he only saw their shortcomings, and, at some time or other, it was just too much to bear. I often think of those paintings now, whenever I view an older picture that I once thought of as “my truth”. In some cases, I can’t see anything in them but the attempt. A few of them do survive the years with something genuine to say…but, ask me again tomorrow, and I may reluctantly transfer many of them over to the “nice try” pile. It’s an imperfect process, but it’s only one I trust.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY CONSISTS OF SELECTED SLICES OF TIME, thin shavings of moments forever taken out of their original contest and preserved as separate, miniature realities. This thing, these people, this time, the camera says, once were. Our mechanical act has yanked them out of the full flow of life and turned them into mere symbols of it.
Time, in photographs is shown in three main ways: just before something happens, as it happens, and just after it has happened. Amazingly, our mind easily keeps these categories distinct. When we read images we immediately know if an action was pending, ongoing, or complete at the time of its taking. To put it another way, think of these three phases as images of, say, the last chop taken at a standing tree, the tree toppling over, and the tree on the ground. But here’s a question; is our photographic style a preference for one of these three very specific time-states?
On a conscious level, probably not. But if we start to edit our output purposefully into three piles…..marked about to be, is, and was, we may see that the bulk of our personal work falls into one of these categories. Again, this happens below our waking mind most of the time. Still, when I am deliberately looking at the process, I find that the moments before something emerges, be that something a sunrise or a gunshot, pack the most impact for me as a viewer.
As an example, in studying an important event (a news story, let’s say) as it’s shown in a photograph, I’m more interested in what the Hindenburg looked like the second before it exploded than I am in the disaster that followed. I’m keener on the sunlight that is about to burst into a dark room than I am in the fully lit space. The second before everyone jumps out and yells “surprise” can possess as much drama (even more, I feel) than the shocked look on the birthday boy’s face a moment later. Or take the case of the above image from several years ago. I no longer actually remember what it was that had tickled this young man so. But that little moment in which he was about to discover something wonderful is a miracle to me forever.
The reason I mention this lies in the fact that, whenever I try to show something that is actively occurring, right now, I frequently find another thing, elsewhere in the picture, that is about to occur, and often that emerging event holds more interest. At least for me. We traditionally think of photographs as preserving the past, and so they generally do. But they are also testimony to something that may, or may not be, about to become something unique. That uncertainty, that mystery, is another element of what makes photographic art so rich, so endlessly tantalizing.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY PHOTOGRAPH IS DISCUSSED LONG BEFORE IT IS VIEWED, with an inner dialogue between shooter and subject that is held, however briefly, ahead of the shutter click. Sometimes, at a fortuitous intersection of talent and luck, that is the end of the discussion; other times, there will be additional chats between the first version of an image and its maker, a talk that can be endlessly debated in the processing and editing phases. And, of course, based on those results, photographs finally make their arguments to the world at large.
The bulk of those discussions focus on what the center, or the essence of a picture should be. Were all elements in balance right out of the camera…in which case, frame it and hang it, case closed? Or (and what is far more likely), did we find that essence at all? Was it compromised, watered down, by faulty composition? Did we make a weak lighting choice here or there? Did execution weaken the effect?
Usually, there is a clear component within a photograph that cries here I am a little louder than all the other parts of it. But sometimes, there are two or more pieces which feed on each other, boost each other’s effectiveness. In such cases, instead of one primary piece and a lot of secondary or extra pieces, you find two things in the photo that are basically tied for first place. When one thing in a picture feels diminished without interacting with another, both elements deserve to stay.
The picture at the top seems, to me, to be just such a case. The floral shop and its faceless proprietor seem somehow married to each other, two halves of a whole. And, while I can conceive of making two separate pictures from the master shot in which either the shop’s inventory or the saleslady are in solo starring roles, they truly do seem interdependent, so I declare a tie, and they both go to the finals.
Thus the discussion on what to include in the picture has gone on for at least two layers, with layer one being the planning of the photo, and layer two being the editorial decision to keep both flowers and florist on equal footing in the final image. Look over your own pictures and you will no doubt find several of these “tied for first place” compositions. It can seem counter-intuitive to have more than one main point in an image. But the image itself will tell you, unmistakably, when that actually make the most sense.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN ONE OF HIS EARLIEST SILENT FILMS, legendary director D.W. Griffith, one of the first cinematic pioneers to use tight shots to highlight vital narrative details, drew fire from theatre exhibitors, who objected to his new-fangled “close-up” or “iris” technique. “We have paid for the entire actor”, one wrote, apparently of the opinion that showing only a player’s hand or face, even in the interest of a good story, was somehow short-changing the audience. Griffith knew better, however. He was using his compositional frame to tell his viewers, in no uncertain terms, what was important. Outside the frame was all the other stuff that mattered less. If I show it, you should pay attention.
Photography is not so much about whether a subject is intrinsically important (think of the apple in a still-life) but whether an artist, armed with a camera and an idea, can make it important. At the dawn of the medium, painters pretty much dominated the choices about which images were immortalized as emblematic of the culture. The subject matter often ran to big targets; war, portraits of the elite, historical and religious events. And, indeed, the earliest photographs were “about something”, the “somethings” often being documents of the world’s wonders (pyramids, cathedrals) fads (politicians, authors) and foibles (crime, the occasional disaster). Subjects were selected for their importance as events, as leaves of history worthy of preservation.
In the 20th century the same abstract movements that engulfed painting allowed photography to cast a wider net. Suddenly that apple in the bowl was a worthy, even a vital subject. Light, composition, angle and mood began to weigh as heavily as the thing pictured. We made images not because the objects looked right, but because they looked right when made into a photograph. Pictures went from being about what “is” to being about what could be….evoking, like poetry, music or literature the magics of memory, dream, potentiality, emotion.
This is really the ultimate freedom of not only photography, but of any true art; the ability to confer special status on anything, anywhere. That doesn’t mean that all photographs are now of equal value; far from it. The burden of proof, the making of the argument for a particular subject’s preservation in an image, still rests squarely on the shooter’s shoulders. It’s just not necessary to wait for a natural disaster, a ribbon cutting, or a breathless landscape to make an amazing photograph. The eye is enough. In fact, it’s everything.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE FIRST EDITORIAL TRUTHS THAT PHOTOGRAPHERS LEARN is that just pointing and recording is not photography. The marvelous device which was designed to arrest time in its flight and imprison it for future reference is truly effective for setting down the facts of a scene….details, textures, dimensions, etc. But, once the shooter is bent upon making any kind of statement…amplifying, clarifying, commenting….then the unadorned data of reality may prove to be a set of chains holding him earthbound. Every picture has it own terms, its own rules of engagement. And sometimes that means moving mere reality to the second chair.
Things that are only recorded are, to a degree, raw, in that they contain important information and extraneous data that might keep an image from being, well, a photograph. A deliberate act. Consider the purest form of “factual” photography, a reconnaissance flyover photo. Seen in its basic “real” state, the colllection of shapes, shades, and wiggles makes little sense to the observer. It needs the help of an interpreter to ferret out the pertinent narrative. Yes, this squiggle is a river. This grey smear is the warehouse. These scratchy cross-hatches are railroad lines. Photographs need to shaped so they can be interpreted. Sometimes this means, for lack of a more grammatical phrase, “including something out.”
There are many ways to achieve this, but, in the interest of brevity, I often find that a simple switch from color to monochrome goes a long way toward streamlining an image. Hues can be distractions, slowing the eye in its pursuit of a picture’s best impact. It prettifies. It luxuriates in tonal shifts, details, textures. Black and white can cut the busier parts of an image in half and convey a starkness (at least in some settings) that color can find problematic. Amping up the contrasts in black & white, eliminating many middle tones, can purify the image even further.
In the above comparison, a neighborhood in Seattle which is, in effect, its local Skid Row, is far more charming, far less gritty in the color rendering than in the mono version. Of course, the choice between the two approaches is made based on what you want to achieve. The same evaluation in a different situation dictates a different choice. Maybe.
Photography is not reality, and, if it were, it would never have flowered into an art, because reality is essentially dull. To make a picture, you have to determine the specific terms for that picture….what weight it wants to carry. Then it starts to become a photograph.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN PHOTOGRAPHY, WE OFTEN HAVE THE OPPORTUNITY TO ADMIRE THINGS THAT ARE, STRICTLY SPEAKING, beyond our capabilities. The world is rife with people who master exposure, composition, editing and conceptualization in ways which make us gasp in a mixture of awe and envy. Sometimes, we are so amazed by artists outside our own area of expertise that we emulate their passion and, in doing so, completely remake our own art. Other times, we just glimpse their greatness like a kid peeking inside the tent flap at the circus. We know that something marvelous is going on in there. We also sense that we are not a part of it.
That’s pretty much been my attitude toward landscape work.
Much of it leaves me impressed. Some of it leaves me breathless. All of it leaves me puzzled, since I know that I am missing a part of whatever mystical “something” it is that allows others to capture majesty and wonder in the natural world, their images looking “created” my own looking merely “snapped”.
It’s not the same with urban settings, or with anything that bears the mark of human creativity. I can instinctually find a story or a sweet point of focus in a building, a public square, a cathedral. I can sense the throb of humanity in these places and I can suggest it in pictures. But put me in front of a broad canvas of scenery and I struggle to carve out a coherent composition. What to include? What to cut? What light is best? And what makes this tree more pictorially essential than the other 3,000 I will encounter today?
The masters of the landscape world are magicians to me, crafty wizards who can charm the dense forest into some evocative choreography, summoning shadows and light into delicate interplay in a way that is direct, dramatic. I occasionally score out in the woods, but my failure rate is much higher, and the distance between what I see and what I can deliver much greater. Oddly, it was the work of scenic photographers, not street shooters or journalists, that originally conveyed the excitement of being a photographer to me, although I quickly devolved to portraits, abstractions, 3D, hell, anything to get me back to town, away from all that scary flora and fauna.
Medium or bite-sized natural subjects do better for me than vast vistas, and macro work, with its study of the very structures and patterns of organic things works even better. But I forever harbor a dream of freezing a forest in time in a way that stuns with its serene stillness and simple dignity. I have to keep putting myself out there, hoping that I can bridge the gap between envy and awareness.
Maybe I’ll start at the city park. I hear they have trees there….
By MICHAEL PERKINS
NEIGHBORHOODS HAVE THEIR OWN VISUAL SIGNATURES, and photographers looking to tap into the energy of streets do well to give their locales a bit of advance study, the better to try to read an area’s particular identity. Sometimes the storytelling potential lies in a single building, even a part of a building. Other times it’s the mix of foot traffic. And, every once in a while, the saga of a street lies in the pavement itself.
New York City’s South Street Seaport district is drenched in local lore, tracing the contours of its alleys and warehouses to the beginnings of Manhattan’s first days as an international shipping destination. From the times of the Dutch’s tall-masted sailing vessels to the present mix of museum and modern retail, the port, on a typical day, offers color, texture, and a feeling of deeply rooted history that is a goldmine for photographers.
Of course, every neighborhood has its off days, and, on my recent trek to the area, a persistent, wind-driven rain had chased all but the hardiest locals off the streets and into the oaky timbers of the port’s quaint shops. Life on the street slowed to a crawl as iron-grey skies robbed the scene of its bolder hues. It was a day to huddle indoors with a good read and a hot cuppa anything. My camera, usually an unfelt burden around my beltline, began to drag like an anchor, stuffed into my woolen jacket to ward off the pelting drizzle, giving me the appearance of someone in sore need of a hip replacement.
Despairing of finding any vital activity along the street, I turned in desperation to the pavement itself, realizing that, in this eastward edge of Manhattan, the texture of the roads abandons the even concrete of most of the island and reverts to the cobbled brick textures of Melville’s time, with many old waterfront fixtures installed at curbside for extra atmosphere. Suddenly I had a little story to tell. The varied mix of firings in the brick, along with the steady rain, delivered the vivid color that was lacking in the area’s shops, allowing me to create an entire frame from just the street itself. Finding that some scale was needed, I sought out an old iron fixture for the left edge of the photo with just the legs and feet of two passing girls to balance out the right side. Suddenly there was enough, just enough of something to make a picture.
Obviously, if the street had been mere wet concrete or blacktop, the impact would have been different, and, were I in a different neighborhood, the street itself might have been unable to compete with the businesses for color or interest. On that morning, however, simple worked best, and my camera, at least for a moment, felt less like an anchor and more like a sailing ship.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE WONDERFUL THING ABOUT COMPOSITION IN PHOTOGRAPHY is that you always, always, have a backup plan. What you don’t frame correctly in the actual shooting of an image can be corrected in post-editing cropping, the use of “framing” within the composition itself, or even how you finally matte the picture before hanging it on the wall. This is as it should be since many pictures are not so much born as re-imagined.
Once you frame a photo, you’re giving the viewer the first visual cue as to what to regard as important. If I included it, you should notice it. If I excluded it, it’s either to set loose your imagination on why I defined this world within these parameters, or because I, as the narrator, am telling you it just don’t matter. You can even further enhance the effectiveness of the frame by its shape. A rectangle might enforce the reading of information left-to-right, for example, while a square might force the eye toward dead center. The original framing is your own best call to action in a photograph.
And even after you’ve defined the frame, you can still add a second directive within it to hyper-focus attention in a very specific space. The use of arches, building overhangs, edges of windows, cliffs, shadows or other secondary “frames” provides even greater cues to the eye, and also adds an illusion of dimension and depth.
In the above shot, the old stone basilica is obviously the main feature of the image, and so was cropped from a wider original to eliminate distracting foreground shrubbery on the right. However, the arch through which the building is viewed was retained, to act as a “secondary frame” and as a way to illustrate scale. The first frame says what information is important, while the second frame makes sure we get to the heart of the image more efficiently.
Using all framing devices available in an image is like using caps, lower case and italicised letters in the same sentence. Composition is about yelling to get people over to your picture, then whispering, as you gently guide them toward its heart.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PEOPLE ARE ONE OF THE MOST COMPLICATED ELEMENTS in a photographic composition. Unlike furniture, foliage or flotsam, humans are the one “prop” in an image which convey associations and meanings that render a photo complex, troubling, intriguing. Put a person in your picture and you have changed the terms upon which you engage the audience.
At the very least, you have posed a series of questions which color the viewer’s reaction to your work. What is that person doing there? What does he wish for, or intend? What are his dreams, his goals? Is she merely in the picture, or in some way a commentary on her context within it? You can move things around in the name of composition alone, but move a person and you have started a conversation.
The placement of people in a frame creates speculation about the motives and origins of those people before they were in the frame. A man shown standing at the platform at a train station could be eagerly awaiting an arrival, sneaking out of town, or merely wandering around. The mind starts to supply his backstory, if you like, his actions before appearing in the finite world of the frame. Put two people side by side, and you have, according to your viewer’s whim, a rendezvous, a goodbye, a conspiracy, a reunion, a chance meeting. People change the perceived intention of a photograph as a storyboard, either in the original framing or in the cropping afterwards.
The above image is the final crop of what was, originally, a scenic overview, taken at a large campus of museum buildings on a hillside. The image, as first conceived, was an overall “postcard” with the restaurant in only the lower right quarter of the frame. Later, I became aware that a single woman was visible in the cafe. Now, it’s not that she was actually the only person inside, but the photograph could be cropped to make her seem like it, meanwhile accentuating the emptiness in her immediate area.
As a consequence, instead of a lady who is merely alone, the image can make her seem “lonely”. Or perhaps you disagree. The point is that, by changing the human information in the frame (note that, in the original of the cropped shot, there is also a man standing outside the restaurant), we’ve re-drawn its narrative.
What gets left out of a picture, then, sparks speculation by the viewer, based on what has been left in.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
OVER THE HISTORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY, OUR CHOICES OF HOW TO PRESENT A PICTURE has changed as well as the means by which we shoot it. Certainly in the film era, sizes and formats shifted from square to landscape to portrait, and those shapes were reflected in the dimensions of the final prints or slides. You know, shoot it wide, print it wide. Somewhere between the waning days of prints and the first waves of pixels, however, the square nearly winked out for a while, and, with it, a particular way of composing a shot. Luckily, it’s back in full force.
It’s had help. Instagram and some retro-film cameras forced the square upon a new generation of shooters, and nearly all phones and phone apps readily offer it as a framing or editing choice. Strangely, manufacturers of DSLRs and other high-end cameras offer no option for shooting in square format, although they all include square cropping in their in-camera re-touch menus. This means that many photographers have to dream square but shoot otherwise, mentally composing the eventual square framing of their subjects in the moment, or even discovering, in edit sessions, that there is a decent square image inside their larger ones just waiting to be let out.
I have recently looked to deliberately edit in favor of the square, since I think that the format forces a kind of compact, centralized story-telling that might be diluted or weakened by wider or longer compositions. Looking at my initial landscape or portrait images, I ask myself if the entire force of the picture could be amped by squaring it off. Sometimes you think a shot calls for one orientation or the other, when the third channel of the square is actually a better tool. Hey, you can’t know everything at the moment of snap.
I do wish that DSLRs would routinely offer the chance to initially shoot in square, just as cheap hipster film cameras and phones already do. Not having every possible tool at your disposal seems wrong, somehow, and, with all the other gimmicks that are offered in higher-end cameras, from fake star twinkles to faux pencil-sketch effects, the inclusion of a third framing orientation just makes sense.