By MICHAEL PERKINS
A FEW YEARS AGO, in trying to express what it felt like not to have a distinctly defined photographic style, I used the title of one of my favorite Van Morrison albums, No Guru, No Method, No Teacher, a phrase which even Van The Man may have lived to regret. The idea was that I couldn’t trace my own approach to making pictures directly to any particular mentor, not that I was so bloody original that I had never fallen under anyone’s influence. The problem in identifying my teachers, gurus and methods was certainly my own; I simply found it hard to draw a straight line from the examples of various photographers to elements of my own work. Now, I find that I can enumerate many profound professors, once I realized that the best of them are often not photographers at all.
That’s where my wife Marian comes in.
I have already spoken at length in these pages of her amazing value to me as a muse and model, but her ability to inspire me as a subject is separate and distinct from her role as a real and fundamental teacher. We’re not talking technical instruction here. This is a woman who has seldom even picked up a camera unless it was in the service of candid shots of friends and loved ones, or as a recording device to freeze the good times of a trip or vacation. Nonetheless she has taught me to see in very specific ways, expanding my idea of what should even be looked at. That ability resides in her love of the natural world, a place where she is a native and I am often a mere visitor. Her passion for birdwatching, for example, has helped me shoot anything, bird or object, with greater patience and deliberation, showing me the value of waiting for your moment. In her case, that might mean standing for fifteen minutes for a glimpse of the bright flicker on the wing of a flitting bluebird, while the equivalent for me might be the discipline to wait for light which, if I wait for an extra five minutes, will be perfect for exactly ten seconds.
Just as most of my other best photographic teachers are not shooters per se, Marian teaches by not trying to; her curiosity incites my own; her humility refines my own. I happily list her among the poets, illustrators, spiritualists and secular saints, from James Thurber to Emerson to Gibran, who have shown me things that no purely technical instruction ever could. Certainly among my heroes are listed many who are, in fact, actual photographers, but, since photography occurs in the eye and the soul long before it animates the hand, there are many people I love for the pictures that reside exclusively in their souls. Marian and I, like many millions of other couples, have spent three lifetimes together over the past year, and she has helped me go from caterpillar to butterfly in the metamorphosis of my camera work. That’s a gift beyond price, and a learning experience beyond the limiting titles of teacher, guru, or method.
And I am grateful.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
A VIDEO BIOGRAPHY OF JOHN SZARKOWSKI, FORMER DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY for the New York Museum Of Modern Art, makes the salient point that most great photographers begin by being great fans of photography, almost to the point of studying the work of others as much as they work to perfect their own craft. This makes perfect sense. Before you can teach others to see, you have to learn to see yourself. And that begins with watching how other people see.
Learning from the masters doesn’t necessarily mean stealing from them, or even being stylistically influenced by them. What you see most importantly in other photographers is how closely their selves are married to how they personally take the measure of the world in visual terms. You learn how few real accidents there are, how few miraculous pictures merely pop out of the camera fully formed. You see the deliberate agency of art, the conscious decision to choose this in order to achieve that.
Szarkowski, who oversaw MOMA’s photographic collections and exhibitions from 1962 to 1991, bore witness as well to the first true acceptance of photography as an art unto itself, with a vocabulary, a power, a poetry separate and distinct from painting. Under Szarkowski’s tutelage, the great new personal photographers, from Garry Winogrand to Diane Arbus to Lee Friedlander, moved from the periphery to the center of popular culture.
Not content to merely designate work worth seeing, or providing it with a prominent platform, Szarkowski also edited and published two of the most important general-use guides to what all of us should look for in a photograph. His seminal books The Photographer’s Eye and Looking At Photographs, both comprised of works from within MOMA’s collections, examined more than just subject matter or technical data, looking at the motives, biases, objectives and visions involved in the making of pictures. Most importantly, both books placed known and unknown shooters on an equal par, making the study of the art about what is achieved, not just how, or by whom.
I cannot imagine having sustained a lifelong interest in making images if I had not first encountered the works of, among others, Pete Turner, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Larry Burrows, Richard Avedon, Berenice Abbott, Alfred Stieglitz, Art Kane, Weegee, Sam Abell, or Francis Wolff. Many of these people thrilled and inspired me. Sometimes they infuriated or shocked me. And sometimes they did all of that in the same moment. All have knocked me upside of the head and repeated, over a lifetime: Look here. Look closer. Look again.
Don’t ever let anyone tell you that photography is about technique, gear, luck or natural ability. You can work around all that stuff. But if you can’t see, you can’t show.
Study. Read. Admire.
Feed your eye.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHIC “MASTER THEORIES” ARE ONLY SLIGHTLY LESS PLENTIFUL than donuts at an AA meeting. I can’t hope to add any fresh shimmer to the bright shiny ideas on picture-making that have already been burnished by time, but I do believe that total photography is very tied to total development as a human being. Sounds like a mountaintop audience with the Maharishi, I know, but I think that, as we limit ourselves as people, so do we limit our ability to effectively interpret or record the world around us. This is not the stuff of master theses, for sure, but when it comes to photography as a way of life, I think all the wisdom you need boils down to a three-rung ladder, arranged thus:
TOP RUNG: LIVE MORE THAN YOU READ. Have direct, personal experiences that truly involve you. Do not vicariously re-live other people’s experiences and call that a life. Get your eyes off the screen, your ears out from under the Dr. Dre Beats, and your hands into the dirt. Learn concepts that call upon you to stretch. Try things that hurt. Taste stuff with strange ingredients. Learn to listen to ideas you think you’ll hate. Certainly, academic learning and secondary experiences have their value. We can’t all trek to Katmandu or scale Everest. But our grasp can certainly exceed what’s on Nickelodeon, a simple truth that brings us to:
MIDDLE RUNG. READ MORE THAN YOU SHOOT. You cannot possibly learn everything about photography by merely going out and doing. You have over two centuries of history, art, philosophy and example to absorb, even if your own style eventually goes rogue. You need influences. You need teachers. The shooters that went before you left wheels for you to roll on. Don’t try to re-invent those wheels; learn to steer by them. And do not limit your reading to photography. You cannot shoot what you cannot appreciate, and you cannot appreciate what you know nothing about. Learn the world, thus earning your right to have a point of view. And, finally, we have:
BOTTOM RUNG: SHOOT MORE THAN YOU THINK YOU NEED TO. Certainly shoot more often than when you “have something to shoot”. Shoot when you’re dry. Shoot when you’re bored. Shoot when you’re wired/angry/amazed/frightened/joyful. Be okay looking like a fool for an idea. Most of all, be willing to take more lousy shots than the next ten guys put together. Think of all those bum images as the thick leaves of Christmas paper swaddling your best pictures. You gotta tear away all the layers to get to your shiny toys.
If these three rungs seem grossly over-simplified to you, try them for about forty years and get back to me. Photography cannot evolve unless we refine the person who clicks the shutter. None of these steps are guaranteed to produce immortal images. But you sure as hell can’t create greatness without them.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IGNORANCE, IN PHOTOGRAPHY, CERTAINLY IS NOT BLISS. However, exposure to that selfsame know-nothing-ness can lead to a kind of bliss, since it can eventually lead you to excellence, or at least improvement. Here and now, I am going to tell you that all the photographic tutorials and classes in history cannot teach you one millionth as much as your own rotten pictures. Period.
Trick is, you have to keep your misbegotten photographic children, and keep them close. Love them. Treasure the hidden reservoir of warnings and no-nos they contain and mine that treasure for all it’s worth. Of course, doing this takes real courage, since your first human instinct, understandingly, will be to do a Norman Bates on them: stab them to death in the shower and bury their car in the swamp out back.
I have purposely kept the results of the first five rolls of film I ever shot for over forty years now. They are almost all miserable failures, and I mean that with no aw-shucks false modesty whatever. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that these images are the Fort Knox of ignorance, an ignorance taller than most minor mountain ranges, an ignorance that, if it was used like some garbage to create energy, could light Europe for a year. We’re talking lousy.
But mine was a divine kind of ignorance. At the age of fourteen, I not only knew nothing, I could not even guess at how much nothing I knew. It’s obvious, as you troll through these Kodak-yellow boxes of Ektachrome slides, that I knew nothing of the limits of film, or exposure, or my own cave-dweller-level camera. Indeed, I remember being completely mystified when I got my first look at my slides as they returned from the processor (an agonizing wait of about three days back then), only to find, time after time, that nothing of what I had seen in my mind had made it into the final image. It wasn’t that dark! It wasn’t that color! It wasn’t…..working. And it wasn’t a question of, “what was I thinking?”, since I always had a clear vision of what I thought the picture should be. It was more like, “why didn’t that work?“, which, at that stage of my development, was as easy to answer as, say, “why don’t I have a Batmobile?” or “why can’t I make food out of peat moss?”
But holding onto the slides over the years paid off. I gradually learned enough to match up Lousy Slide “A” with Solution”B”, as I learned what to ask of myself and a camera, how to make the box do my bidding, how to build on the foundation of all that failure. And the best thing about keeping all of the fizzles in those old cartons was that I also kept the few slides that actually worked, in spite of a fixed-focus, plastic lens, light-leaky box camera and my own glorious stupidity. Because, since I didn’t know what I could do, I tried everything, and, on a few miraculous occasions, I either guessed right, or God was celebrating Throw A Mortal A Bone Day.
Thing is, I was reaching beyond what I knew, what I could hope to accomplish. Out of that sheer zeal, you can eventually learn to make photographs. But you have to keep growing beyond your cameras. It’s easy when it’s a plastic hunk of garbage, not so easy later on. But you have to keep calling on that nervy, ignorant fourteen-year-old, and giving him the steering wheel. It’s the only way things get better.
You can’t learn from your mistakes until you room with them for a semester or two. And then they can teach you better than anyone or anything you will ever encounter, anywhere.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
KODAK’S SAD AND WOBBLY RE-EMERGENCE FROM BANKRUPTCY, announced this week, finalizes the process of “saving” a famous name, while annihilating the legacy of innovation that made that name great for over a century. Having already said goodbye to Kodachrome, most of its other trademark films, and camera production itself, Kodak will now concentrate on “imaging products”, which, for, most of us, means “printers”. Most of the news coverage of this corporate resurrection will “focus” (sorry) on what the new company stock will be worth, who goes, who stays, and a few scant mentions of the company’s original role as camera producer to the world.
That will leave a significant part of the story untold.
Certainly, George Eastman’s genius for marketing helped develop the first flexible roll films, then ingeniously created a market for them by putting a basic, usable camera in the hands of the Everyman. Nearly everyone has heard the slogan Kodak created to demonstrate how truly effortless its products had made photography: you press the button and we do the rest. But none of that would have guaranteed the company’s growth if Kodak has not also decided to become photography’s first great mass teacher, creating pro-active education programs to guarantee that, not only could Uncle Clem snap a photo easily, he could snap a good photo easily. What had once been a dark art for a select cabal of techno-wizards became, under Kodak’s outreach, something that could anybody could do.
And Kodak was going to show you how to do it.
Beginning before the end of the Victorian era, the company began to publish the first of an endless stream of practical guides on technique and simple theory aimed at the average shutterbug. Starting in 1898 with Picture Taking And Picture Making (115 pages of tips in a cardboard cover for fifty cents!), Eastman Kodak moved to 1905’s The Modern Way In Picture Making, and, finally, to the most successful photo instruction series in history, How To Make Good Pictures, introduced in 1912 and revised continually until finishing up with its 37th edition, in 1995. Over the years the “make” in the title had been changed to “take”, and its 1890’s essays on bromide paper, collodion matte, and ground-glass focusing had evolved, over the decades, to instructions on the use of flash, color, drop-in film cartridges, and “how to tell a picture story” with your Kodacolor slides. Hundreds of printings and millions of sales later, How To Make Good Pictures forged an ironclad link between consumer and company in a way no corporation before or since has done.
To everything there is a season. Kodak’s (now historically) tragic failure to see digital photography as a viable consumer revolution, until it was too late, is a matter of raw record. The company that taught the world to see had a blind spot, a fatal one, and the irony that nearly all of the rest of the industry developed digital technology by applying processes originated (and patented) by Kodak makes the story even sadder.
But, once upon a time, the Eastman Kodak Company not only knew what the future of photography was going to look like, it wrote a handy dandy little book that told everyone how to master that future.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye
- Kodak moments are just a memory as company exits bankruptcy (kansascity.com)