By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT ISN’T THE EASIEST THING, upstaging one of the world’s key postcard views. And yet, in final analysis, people should rank higher, in the photographer’s eye, than the things people build for their use. So it should come as no surprise that, to the patient eye, human-sized scene stealers abound everywhere, big setting or small.
This view of the southern side of the Brooklyn Bridge certainly needs no additional context, and yet, the nearby Pier 17 promenade, repaired and re-imagined as all-new public space near the Fulton Street market region in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy (and shown here), provides a daily flood of people-watching opportunity. Indeed, almost any other framing along the deck at the moment this shot was taken would show just how much company the ladies seen here actually had on this particular Saturday evening. The word throng definitely applied, with just about any other composition revealing hundreds of singles, couples, and families crowding the Pier’s restaurants, bars, kiosks, tour boats and viewing rails……however, we have decided, for the moment, to concentrate on these two ladies, and the bond of friendship that is more than enough story to power a photograph.
What you can’t hear, and they clearly could, is the incredible music beat being pumped throughout the pier. What you can certainly see is that you don’t have to be standing, or even using your entire body, to dance…to feel….to be one with that beat. In truth, given that the woman at left is sporting a pair of crutches, “dancing” becomes the living embodiment of the motto work what you got, with mere hand claps getting the job done. As for the lady in purple, a single, upraised hand and a bowed head testify, yes, I’m feelin‘ it. They are both sitting, but they are in no way sedentary. It’s on.
And while all this is going on, just like that, the Great Bridge has dropped to second billing. A backdrop. Atmosphere. Which is something that can happen anywhere, but especially here. For as they know all too well on Broadway, on any given night, the understudy can take stage instead of the star.
And steal the show.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S NOW OFFICIALLY BEEN “A WHILE” since I last did a group thanks/welcome to the many of you who’ve joined The Normal Eye in recent months. I apologize for the lapse in manners, and assure you that, while I usually use the right spoon for soup and cross only at the light, I still haven’t gotten around to getting my 1987 Christmas cards sent out. It’s a process.
So, assuming that a particular post has recently motivated you to subscribe to this here small-town newspaper, thank you. And, as a way of demonstrating what to expect from us on a day-to-day basis, here’s a little backstory on TNE:
I wanted to create this forum because I feared, at the beginning of the digital age, that photography was becoming a reflexive act, a kind of knee-jerk spasm made ever more convenient but also more robotic due to amazing technical advancements that were almost literally taking the pictures for us. For sure, much of the muss and fuss of film was going away (a net gain), but the incredible foolproof–ness of even the most basic digital cameras was making speed and ease bigger considerations than the skills of seeing and planning, the most valuable traits of the slower, analog world…. a net loss, it seemed to me, for photography as an art.
Now to be clear, this platform is not, and has never claimed to be, a technical tutorial, and indeed the percentage of how-to advice we feature has always lagged way behind the why do it stuff. The Normal Eye is an examination of motivations, a way of restoring the human eye to its primary role in how pictures are made…..of normalizing it (hence the name). The eye outranks equipment, formats, subject matter, even formal training. With the eye, you can master your message with a cardboard box and a pinhole: without it, you won’t get your image made with an army of Leicas.
Happily, in the intervening years, the tide in all phases of photography has begun to turn back toward the instinctual, with amazing work by the world’s shooters that is once again placing technology in the service of the imagination. From the Lomography and Lensbaby revolutions to the resurgence of all-manual “art lenses” to a re-evaluation of (and partial return to) film, the art in photography is reasserting itself. Certainly no one answer works for everyone, but the questions are getting better.
So that’s what you signed up for: a conversation, a confrontation, a refusal to think of any single method or approach as “final” or “definitive”…..a promise to yourself to make pictures on purpose, with eyes wide open.
Thanks for joining the party.
I AM STILL IN PAIN, several days after the most aggressive photographic housecleaning I’ve endured in years, the ruthless removal of years of deadwood from a photo-sharing site on which I’ve parked way, way too many wayward pictures. This was, finally, the week to toss away the old moose head in the attic, the day to tearfully admit that you no longer fit into your varsity jersey. Hail and farewell, parting is such sweet sorrow. Goodbye and good riddance.
OVERHEARD DURING MY EDITING/DELETING PROCESS
Oh, My Gawd…
What even is that?
Well, that certainly didn’t work…..
Nothing wrong with this one…..except the lighting, aperture, and composition…
Seriously, what the hell is that?
Lots of this concentrated cringing over pix of yesteryear speaks to my old acronym SLAGIATT, or Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time, the simple truth that what you believe is profound at the time of the shutter click will strike you as reeking fish wrap several miles down the pike. We do outgrow, update, and disown old ideas, hopefully replacing them with better ones.
To take it a bit further, if a significant number of your old images don’t make you want to reach for the bilge bucket, one of two things is true. (1) You are already God’s messenger, the one true Messiah of photography (unlikely), or (2) you are so mired in habit and false comfort that the way you shoot is the way you always shot and the way you will always shoot. Given those choices, it may be preferable to regard at least some of one’s work the way Jack Nicholson’s Joker riffed through Vicki Vale’s portfolio, i.e, “crap…..crap….crap…” It hurts, but it’s healthy.
Every binge must have a purge, and the gluttonous output of the digital age guarantees one sure truth: they can’t all be gems. I hate having to disown my kids as much as the next shooter, but part of learning is learning to fail, admitting that at least some of those kids will never Get Into A Good School, Settle Down With Someone Nice, and Start Giving Us Some Grandchildren. If for no other reason than to help us know excellence when we see it, we need to be able to fearlessly label all the loves we have lost.
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
WITH PAINTING AS ITS INITIAL INFLUENCE, THE YOUNG ART OF PHOTOGRAPHY spent its first years trying to record transcendent scenes of the world, from landscapes to portraits, in much the same elegant, poetic way that such subjects were translated to the canvas. Partly due to the limits of early exposure media, the task of making a picture was slower in those first years, almost a contemplative act. And so, in pace and mood, the strange new machine seemed intent on imitating its painterly elder, at least in part to make the argument that even a machine could be imbued with an artist’s eye.
Then came faster film and faster events. The images of war and the advancing grind of city life coincided with the introduction of more responsive films. The snapshot, the ability to catch an accelerating world on the fly, became commonplace. Photography took on a new role as reporter’s tool, a way to visually testify to human problems and their impacts. Photojournalism, in turn, gave way to commerce, which created an image bias in news coverage that persists to the present day. Photos take their tone from the needs of the marketplace. Tragedy outsells beauty. If it bleeds, it leads. Pulitzer prizes aren’t awarded to people who make pictures of daffodils.
And yet, there is a greater need for pictorial beauty than ever before, simply so that our visual diet doesn’t consist solely of red meat and blood. Certainly, the sensational holds tremendous sway over what gets published, re-printed, re-tweeted. The images that stamp themselves on our brains hold many traumas and dramas. Admittedly, some have sparked outrage, which in turn spurs action, and that can be a good thing. But photography can make us hard and jaded as well, and we dare not squeeze beauty into the margins of our consumption. Pictures shape feelings, and they can also condition us to feel less and less about more and more.
From Lewis Hine’s harrowing pictures of children in cotton mills to present-day iPhone dispatches from the latest repressions or riots, photographs are the seismograph of our collective consciences. But just as man cannot live on bread alone, he cannot subsist solely on nightmares. Beauty, harmony, aspiration, hope….we need to capture all these as well, lest, under the barrage of the shell and the bullet, the butterfly is blasted into extinction.
It’s a question of balance.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN ONE OF LIFE’S GREAT IRONIES, YOU TRULY BECOME A PHOTOGRAPHER the first time you consider chucking all your gear off a cliff and never taking a picture again. Just as you can’t understand faith until you nearly lose it, you can’t really become an excellent maker of pictures unless you’ve been paralyzed, even a little frightened, in considering the distance between what you know and what you need to know.
All visual arts, all arts in general, really, are pursuits. We are chasing something, either in our work or in ourselves. Maybe both. We don’t always know what it is, but we sure as hell know what it’s not. Calling forth an image from a mix of instinct, experience and light seems like an easy thing, since there are so many cameras that deliver acceptable pictures with a minimum of effort. Unlike the early days of the medium, it’s no longer an uphill struggle technically getting “a” picture.
Ah, but getting “the” picture…that’s the work of a lifetime.
Sometimes, that challenge seems glorious. A crusade. Other times, it’s a slog. And, occasionally, the wandering between what you see in your head and what you can deliver in a given picture is exhausting, and you will sometimes want to stop. For good. Many do, and many more ache to.
The technical part of photography can certainly be taught, just as there is not that much to the mere mechanics of hitting a baseball or driving a car. Getting to the excellence, however, is daunting. And if you’re hung up on destinations, on “getting there”, realizing that it’s actually about the journey can be heartbreaking. You want to arrive at perfection, and you realize that you never can.
You have to learn to live on little glimpses of the prize, those flickers of wow when an image starts to take on its own life. That’s the payoff. Not praise, or publication, or a million “likes” on Instagram. Because it really doesn’t matter a damn what others think of your work. If you don’t love it, all the applause in the world just becomes noise. The pictures have to be there. For you. The wandering has to amount to something.
Once you learn to find fault in even your favorite brainchildren, you can father better ones going forward. Even better, once you know what your work looks like when you’re lost, the closer you are to being found. Eventually, photography is like anything else you can care passionately about. The fire carries you through when the progress won’t.
So hang on. There’s light up ahead.
Go catch it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN THE BEGINNING, PHOTOGRAPHY WAS MOSTLY ABOUT RECORDING, arresting time in its flight in order to preserve scenes for posterity. And, for its earliest practitioners, that purely technical feat of stopping the clock was enough. We still use the word capture to describe this harvesting of moments. Soon, however, photographs became truly interpretive. That is, they set out to be about something beyond a mere logging of the physical world. In so doing, they passed from documents to statements, with shooters choosing which world view they wanted to present.
I find that, even in the most complex documentary photos, those views seem to collect into two main camps of thought. One kind of image, which may be called the “ruin” category, depicts what we have lost. Abandoned buildings, wrecked cities, damaged lives. “Ruin” campers show the deterioration of things and ask us to assess the loss of dreams. The second general kind of interpretive category, which I’ll call the “resurrection” camp, shows the things that might have experienced ruin but are rebounding, on their way back up. Rez campers show the resiliency of the human spirit, the belief that there will, indeed, be a tomorrow.
Human beings being partisan by instinct, curators, editors, and audiences can, and do, glorify the pictures of one camp while decrying the worthlessness of images from the other camp, in what is really a false choice. Life is never cleanly divided between heaven and hell, and neither should your pictures be.
Photographs that show what we have wasted are no more “authentic” than those that show us recovering from loss. And truly great photographers actually straddle both camps in their best work. But your purpose in a picture must be clear: the image at the top of this page seems to mourn the devastation of an old family farm. However, if I were to pull back to a larger frame, the camera would also show the freshly furrowed fields of a property that is in the process of being re-developed. Ruin or Resurrection? It’s down to approach, and context.
Some days it seems like the best story you can tell is a tragic one, but, at other times, there is nothing more courageously honest than depicting hope. It all depends on what comes to hand. The best plan is not to plan, to be open to whatever the best testimony is, right here, in this picture.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
A PERSON’S RELATIONSHIP WITH PHOTOGRAPHY, MEASURED OVER A LIFETIME, can come to resemble a marriage, with all the occasional rifts, rumbles and repellents of living with anyone (or anything) nonstop ’til death. Just as any good golfer has thrown the odd club into the 7th hole lake, any shooter worth his emulsions/pixels will, at least once, consider pitching his gear into the nearest abyss, then setting a cheery bonfire of his accumulated work alight in the home driveway (after securing all necessary permits, of course). I dare you to deny it. We hate intensely because we have loved intensely, and fallen intensely short.
The fury eventually abates, however, and we resume the “on” portion of the on again/off again love of photography, not knowing when it next will toggle to “off”, or if switching back to “on” even has any prospect of success. The fact is, creative passion can generate emotional surges, microbursts of feeling so intense they could pop the top off a seismograph. This means answering “the questions” as they ring inside your skull:
Why did I ever start doing this?
What made me thing I’d ever be any good at it?
And where is that damned lens?????
In the interest of my own sanity, I never contemplate a total divorce from photography, but I avidly support the need for a trial separation from time to time. Every relief valve has to be opened and flushed out occasionally, and when the ideas, or the patience to execute them, seem to have gone south for the winter, you have to furlough the workers and shut down the plant. For a while. Hammering away at a problem with an image may eventually loosen what’s stuck, but it’s just as valuable to know when to lay down your tools and quit the scene. For a while. Once your brain is running on high-octane rage, all things beautiful and visionary will just be drowned out by all the screaming, so, really, I’m not kidding: accept the fact that occasionally you’ll announce to all your friends and family that you’re “over the whole photography thing”. And you will absolutely mean it.
For a while.
Here’s another thought: fake-quitting photography will provide the most severe test of how much you were into it in the first place. A trial separation is just that: a test to see if there was anything worth saving in the relationship. Scary process, but, if you come back, whether to a partner or a Nikon, you come back renewed and freshly committed to Make This Thing Work. All of a sudden, you’re bringing your Canon chocolates and roses, and arranging for a romantic candlelight dinner. And the work grows again.
For a while.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
VISITORS TO THE FACTORY HEADQUARTERS OF BEN & JERRY’S ICE CREAM in Stowe, Vermont, upon completing the standard tour of the works, are encouraged to climb a small hill out back of the building to view the company’s Dead Flavor’s Graveyard, an actual cemetery, complete with elegantly epitaphed tombstones and dedicated to such failed B&J varietals as Turtle Soup, Fossil Fuel, White Russian and Sweet Potato Pie. It’s a humorous way to point out that, even for talented startups, there’s no such thing as a direct shot up the mountain of fame. We duck. We detour. We change direction. It’s a process, not a product.
Photography is, in this way (and in no other way that I can think of) much like ice cream.
As we clear the 500 mark on posts for The Normal Eye, I want to (a) profoundly thank all those who have joined us on the journey, and (b) restate that, as our sub-head reads, it really is about a journey, rather than a destination. This small-town newspaper began because I had met so many people over the years who had become suspicious of their camera’s true intentions. Sure, they admitted, the automodes do pretty great on many pictures, but what if I actually want some say in the process? Can I be an active agent in the making of my own pictures?
Now, these weren’t people who wanted to purchase $10,000 worth of gear, sell their houses, abandon their children, and become photo gypsies for NatGeo. These were simply people whose photographic curiosity had finally got the better of them. What would happen, they asked, if I were to, all by myself, make one little extra choice, independent of the camera’s superbrain, before the shutter snapped? And what if I made two? Or three? Other questions followed. What is seeing? How do you learn to value your own vision? And what tasks from the era of film still apply as solid principles in the digital age?
The Normal Eye has spent the last four years trying to ask those questions, not from a top-down, “here is how to do it” approach, since so many of these solutions must be privately arrived at. This is not, and will never be, a technical tutorial. I reflect on what thoughts went into a particular problem, and how I personally decided to try to solve it. The results, as are all my words, are up for debate.
It’s humbling to remember that, in photography, there is always more than one path to paradise. And when I find myself being crushed under the weight of my own Dead Flavor Graveyard, I take heart in those moments when your feedback has made a difference in my motivations, or methods, or both. Recently, I received what I still cherish as one of the best comments over the entire run, with one gentleman proclaiming:
I’m not a fan of words, but the ones in this article are in a tolerable sequence.
Hey, that’s enough to hold me for another 500, and I hope you’ll be along for the ride.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
T.S. ELIOT ONCE ASKED, POIGNANTLY, ‘WHAT IS THE SOUND OF ONE HAND CLAPPING?‘ as if there could be no lonelier thing in this weary world. However, had he been a photographer, he might also have mused about the sound of one wife sighing, as her husband assures her that “I just need one more shot“, or “you can all go ahead, I’ll meet you at the gift shop.” Such assurances would be enough to send Mrs. Eliot’s one hand clapping T.S. soundly about the ears.
We really do hear the steam escaping from our wives’ ears as we mutter about whether we need a prime lens or a wide-angle for our next masterpiece. We understand that it’s not much fun watching your beloved stare at a pile of junk in a dark alley, pondering whether it all makes a profound statement about the state of the world. We get the fact that you might prefer that we answer your question about whether your mother should come and live with us, rather than mumble, “if I close down to f/11 to get past that glare, I’m gonna lose two stops of light…”
In short, we know what a colossal pain it is to be with someone who constantly hauls around a mad gaggle of gears, gauges, geegaws and gadgets. We even realize that you might have a hard time remembering the last time you saw us walking around on only two legs…..you know, without the tripod.
We stipulate that, sometimes, a hunk of rock is just a hunk of rock, not a canvas on which to mount our genius, just as “a little light reading” to the rest of the world might mean a beach thriller by Robert Crais, not the flash attachment section of the B&H Video catalog. We even admit that it’s a little catty of us to stare across the room at a restaurant and make our one contribution to the table’s conversation with, “look at that stupid guy. He’s not even framing up his shot!”
Yes, ladies, we need to not so much “get a life” as to get a slightly larger, wider one. So, thank you for reminding us that, if we fall off this mountain by stepping back for the perfect composition, we might make orphan our children. Thank you for occasionally filling us in on certain details of said children’s lives, such as their proper names, birthdays, distinguishing features, etc. Thank you for not wincing when we name the family dog Steiglitz. Thank you for not leaving us for dead when we use the foil cover from your best picnic casserole for a makeshift bounce reflector.
Mostly, as in the above scene, we humbly thank you for not seizing the opportunity to dump us and our dratted gear in the nearest abyss.
And then taking a picture of it.
And then laughing, hysterically.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY IS ONLY PARTLY ABOUT A STRING OF TECHNICAL DEVELOPMENTS AND BREAKTHROUGHS. It is also the chronicle of what those advances have done to democratize the art, moving it from the domain of rich tinkerers and elites to an arena in which nearly anyone can participate and compete. From the first box camera to Instagram, it is about breaking down barriers. This is not something that is open to debate. It just is.
That’s why it’s time to re-think the words professional and amateur as they apply to the making of images. This is the kind of topic where everybody tends to throw down passionately on one side or the other, with few straddlers or fence-sitters.
Those shooters whose toil is literally their bread and butter are, understandably, a little resentful of the newbie whose low-fi snap of a trending topic tops a million likes on Twitter, all without said snapper’s having mastered the technical ten commandments of exposure or composition. And those whose work is honest, earnest and sincere, yet formally uncertified, hate being thought of as less Authentic, Genuine, or Real simply because no one has printed their output in the approved channels of accepted craft, be it magazines like Nat Geo or the cover of the New York Times.
Okay, I get it. From your personal perspective, you don’t get no respect. But you know what? Get over yourself.
Do we really need to trot out the names of those who never got paid a penny for their work, mostly because their entire output consisted of inane selfies or dramatic lo-fi still lifes of their latest latte? Is it helpful to point out the people within the “official” photographic brotherhood whose work is lazy or derivative? Nope. It is beyond pointless for the two sides to get into an endless loop of So’s Your Mom.
So let’s go another way.
The words professional and amateur are, increasingly, distinctions without difference, at least as ways to attest to the quality of the end product: the photograph. When you pick up a magazine featuring a compelling image, do you ever, ever ask yourself whether it was taken by someone who got paid for it, or do you, in fact, either react to it or ignore it based on its power, its emotional impact, the curiosity and daring of the shooter? The fact is, photography has, from day one, been moved forward by both hobbyist and expert, and, in today’s world, the only thing that makes a shot “professional” is the talent and passion with which it’s been rendered. Anything else is just jaw music.