By MICHAEL PERKINS
CALL IT THE WEAR AND TEAR OF A LIFETIME: call it a loss of faith: call it wisdom, if you prefer. Whatever the cause, I can no longer pray as I so easily and fervently did as a child. Maybe I should be considered “lost”, although I actually feel freed. Maybe I should be pitied, although I sometimes feel I should be envied. Suffice it to say that no building, no symbol, no text gives me that once-natural feeling of connection and community in the same way that a camera does.
The ways that I engage the world with a camera acts, in some ways, as my version of a prayer. In contrast to the petty entreaties that Junior Me sent heavenward in search of my various wants or desires, I find that learning to see the broad miracle that is existence, and trying to fix impressions of that onto various media….that is praying. Not a request for anything from a person, and not as a mere ritual or habit, but still a potentially sacred act.
Photography has become my way of saying thank you to everything, or nobody, in a language that mere verses and scriptures can no longer express. When I take seemingly disparate conditions or elements and cohere them into an image, that’s about as close to the act of creation as I am liable to get. Is the picture an offering, a sacrifice? Actually, it can be that, plus a lot more.
Prayer is thought to be about humility, of realizing that your arms are too short to box with the universe and trying to get said universe to stretch its own arms toward you, to meet you halfway. Photography, or really any art, is an attempt to get those two sets of arms linked. When it works, it produces in me a larger “answer” than anything else to the question, “what’s it all about?” Prayer, for the younger me, was about helping myself feel less alone, to tap into something broader and deeper than myself. And when I celebrate the vast variety of life, then try to share those secrets out with the larger world…well, if that isn’t holy, then I have no idea what is.
EYEWITNESSED AND UNDERLINED
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.
A QUESTION OF BALANCE
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.
SO, THAT HAPPENED
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MOST YEAR-END ROUND-UP LISTS, from rosters of hot-selling New York Times books to summaries of the most binge-worthy tv titles, tend, in our marketing-based society, to be “best-of’s”, rankings of what’s hot and what (since it didn’t make the list) is not. I’m certainly not immune to these sales-skewed tabulations, but, in strictly artistic terms, there should also be lists that are more like “most representative of” rather than “best”.
There’s a very human reason for this distinction. Creative people are often fonder of the their personal also-rans than their personal bests. We cherish the effort, as much as, if not more than, the race results. He who came in first and he who gave it the best go are often two different people (or two different works of art), and our hearts go out (especially in the case of our own work) to the stuff that shows our growth rather than our success.
And that’s where I find my head at the end of this photographic year.
Up top of the screen, starting today, there’s a tab for a new gallery page called Fifteen for 15. Now, quickly, guess how many pictures there are in it. Then guess what year they came from. Yeah, I’m really that dull. The images therein aren’t necessarily my technical best, perhaps not even the pictures that work the best for you as an audience. But they do comprise a pretty fair sampling of every direction in which I was attempting to stretch during the year, and maybe that’s more important than a mere brag-sheet of home runs.
I used to think my goal was to develop a style that didn’t, ha ha, look like a style (oh, these artists!) . Now, I actually want to try to create a chronicle of everywhere that I stepped outside my comfort zone, since that’s where both the spectacular wins and the astounding misses reside. And if I can finish out a given calendar year and point to at least a baker’s dozen of shots that show me at least trying to color outside the lines, I’ll call that year a success. With lists, “Best-Of’s” are great for the ego. However, “Representative-Of’s” may be better for the soul.
So, that happened.
ROUNDING TO THE NEXT BEST YOU
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU MAY FIND, AS I HAVE, THAT MANY OF THE BEST PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE ALSO, ARTISTICALLY, SPEAKING, “SOMETHING ELSE“. That is, their creative energies emerge in more than just one medium, even if images are their preferred language. This has always been thus. During the camera’s infancy, many photogs were former painters. Writers were also among the first to explore the new art of picture-making, and the amateur photo work of scribes like Emile Zola and Lewis Carroll remain worthy of note today.
In the 20th century, some painters-turned-photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson turned back to the brush late in life, while other artists like Man Ray stayed firmly anchored in both camps. And even the great theologian and poet Thomas Merton spent his last years as a Trappist monk dabbling in a kind of zen expressionism through the viewfinder of his Canon 35mm.
This doesn’t exactly prove that everyone who is adept in one kind of art will also be effective as a photographer, but it does demonstrate that some people who are curious in all ways of expression will sometimes also choose the camera as an instrument. I personally believe that this can only improve your way of seeing, since “vision” isn’t achieved merely through the eyes, but through the accumulation of all one’s life experience.
I would even go one step farther and claim that just studying photography may be bad for one’s development as a photographer. Rather, it is the total weight of one’s life which shapes one’s seeing, just as a worldlier view can inform one’s writing, cooking, singing, or strumming. No one art is so complete that it can operate in a vacuum, sealed away from all the other arts.
We readily accept that composers need to occasionally be historians, that writers should sometimes be philosophers, and that both painters and chefs should master a little science, so how can we believe that photographers can comment on the whole of life without at least dabbling in the world beyond their computers or darkrooms? You cannot be willfully blind as a person and visionary as a photographer at the same time. The more there is of you, the more of you there is that makes it into your pictures.
POST #500: ON THE ROAD TO CHERRY GARCIA
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.
THE THIRD WAVE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I’VE BEEN DRENCHED IN A VIRTUAL TIDAL WAVE over the last few days, visiting one of those torrential storms of discontent that can only exist on the internet, churning furiously, forever, no resolution, no winner. I don’t know when it began; I only know that, six months, a year, or a decade from now, if I return for more, the storm will still be raging, the two forces inexhaustible in their contempt for each other.
In one corner will be the photographers who believe that equipment has no determination in whether you make great pictures. In the other corner will be those who believe that you absolutely need good gear to make good images. The invective hurled by each combatant at the other is more virulent than venom, more everlasting than a family feud, more primal than the struggle between good and evil.
If you dig bloodsport, enter the maelstrom at the shallow end by Googling phrases like “Leicas are not the greatest cameras” or “your camera doesn’t matter” and then jump behind a barricade. Do more provocative searches like “hipsters are ruining photography” or “don’t think, just shoot” at your peril.
As with many other truth quests in photography, this one shows strong evidence for both of the waves in the surge. Certainly a great piece of equipment cannot confer its greatness upon you, or your work. And, from the other side, sometimes a camera’s limitations places limits, or at least austere challenges, upon even superbly talented people. And, so, to my mind, there is a third, more consistently true wave: sometimes there is a magic that makes it to the final frame that is mysterious, in that you don’t know how much of the picture you took, how much the camera took, or just how ready the cosmos was to serve that picture up to you. See image above, which I can no longer take either credit or blame for.
Yeah, that’s a little Zen high priest in tone, but look over your own work, especially things you did five or more years ago, where it’s now difficult to recall the exact circumstances of the success of a given image. Pull out the pictures that could be correctly captioned “I don’t know how I got that shot”, “I guess I just went for broke”, or “don’t ask me why that worked out..” There will be more pictures that fall between the extremes, that are neither “thank God I had my cool camera” nor “thank God I was able to make that image despite my limited gear.” That middle ground is the place where miracles thrive, or die on the vine. That strange intersection of truth , far beyond the lands of my-side/your-side heat, is where lies the real light.
AN OPEN LETTER TO PATIENT WIVES
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.
THE DEVELOPMENTAL NATURE OF PHOTOGRAPHY is not unlike that seen in many other crafts that eventually lead to art. Built in layers at a measured pace over years, the photographer’s eye deepens, broadens, becomes both intellectual and instinctual. It is a process, one that some would argue is never complete, and is similar to the way a sculptor’s grip on the chisel goes from brute strength to brain wave, or the halting young painter, over time, converts brush strokes to master strokes.
However, this process is subverted by contemporary culture’s addiction to things…new things, shiny things, latest things. When photography meets consumerism, acquisition, not mastery, becomes the prime objective. How can you take today’s pictures with yesterday’s camera? This new toy, this fresh gadget, changes everything. Adapt, or die a thousand uncool deaths.
This is flawed thinking, but it sweeps many of us up in the frenzy to constantly replace all our gear, placing our faith in the mechanics, rather than the aesthetics, of making pictures. Advertising is about artificially engineering need. If you can be made to have disdain for your old stuff, the people who make new stuff will never run out of customers. It’s just that simple. Fact is, there are many people who presently own perfectly adequate cameras, and, based on where they are as photographers, they do not need to go to the next big thing, since they have not mastered what they presently use. Here is the truth: changing cameras because you have outgrown your current one is the only time such change makes any artistic sense.
Now, I’m not saying that you should “settle” if your camera is so limited that it’s holding you back. There are some gauzy-eyed fantasists out there that love to rhapsodize on how you can make glorious pictures with crappy cameras, and, while I applaud their enthusiasm, I question their sanity. Romantic notions aside, crap usually begets crap. Get a box adequate to your needs. But make sure that it is also proportionate to your ability and involvement. I have seen more newbies over-purchase monstrous mega-machines that they either under-utilize by 90% or which terrify them so much that they lie rotting in drawers (the cameras, not the customers) after a few months of frustration and failure.
Find the camera that defines what kind of photographer you are right now, and pull every ounce of creativity out of it until you know that you need something else in order to grow. Trying to shoot masterpieces with junk usually doesn’t work, but sinking your hopes into a $2,000 thoroughbred that you’re going to use like a point-and-shoot may actually be worse.
PASS GO, COLLECT $200
By MICHAEL PERKINS
BIRTHDAYS HAVE BECOME SOMETHING OF A CONUNDRUM AT MY AGE. The annual ritual of looking yourself over, and thereby taking some kind of critical inventory of personality debits and credits, has become a little like finding an old favorite shirt in a drawer. On one hand, it’s horribly out of fashion, and may not fit so well anymore. On the other hand, you had some great times in it, and it was really well made….I mean look at the quality in the fabric…….
And so, after a few loving looks, back in the drawer it goes.
There are so many yardsticks to apply to a life, so many ways to mark distance run. You can produce either smiles or sighs with any of them. Of course, I’d like to weigh less. Of course, I’d like to know more. And when it comes to photography, of course I’d like to be able to invoke a thirty-year mortality extension clause, in the hope that maybe, just maybe, I’d eventually learn to see as I should, before shuffling off to The Undiscovered Country.
In recent years, I’ve used self-portraits as some kind of mile marker on myself, either as an index of technique, or maybe just a detailed document of wear and tear. It’s somewhat related to the annual torture that used to be School Picture Day, except that there’s no creepy guy to give me a lame nickname and hand me a plastic pocket comb. Another key difference is that I can keep shooting until my eyes are open and my cowlick behaves.
So, anyway, tomorrow, I’ll waddle my way past “GO” and collect my $200. Someone will once again stick something with a lit candle in front of me, and, once again, I will experience that all too human mix between gratitude and regret that makes humanity the ultimate sweet-and-sour entrée. I’ve been around from Brownies to Instamatics to Polaroids to iPhones, and it’s been a privilege to behold it all. And, if I’ve produced even one visual document to suggest to anyone else how marvelously grand the world is, then it’s been a pretty good run. It’s nice to be around.
Hey, did they take taxes out of this $200????
HOWS AND WHYS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS THE NORMAL EYE BEGINS ANOTHER YEAR of scraps and scribblings, we like to both welcome those of you who’ve joined our little volunteer fire company since we last passed “go”, and thank our long-term friends and contributors for their vision and faith. As they say on the airlines, we know you have many choices for ways to fly. That you choose, from time to time, to fly with us is a great privilege.
We also mark the turn of the calendar to re-affirm what this home-town newspaper is, or is not. To my mind, the most vital part of photography has never been about mere technical proficiency. Virtually anyone, I believe, can learn the rudiments of exposure and aperture in a weekend. Not master them, but learn them. The greater task, by far, for anyone hoping to attain that mastery, is to train oneself to see in ever more comprehensive ways, to develop the instinct-based curiosity that takes the creative decisions from the camera’s automodes and puts them back into the hands of the photographer.
The Author Looks Back. Or maybe just to the right.
Prior to the development of more and more fool-proofed ways of acquiring consistently satisfactory images from the technical assists offered by amazing cameras, the native, or “normal” state of the photographer’s eye was one of mindfulness, of forethought, of consciously mapping out and planning a shot. Thus, as our name implies, “the normal eye” is one that sees critically and makes choices with deliberation. That means declaring more and more independence from mere technology. It means that your camera is your servant, not your master.
In the years since The Normal Eye was launched, the world has witnessed several significant revolutions in photographic philosophy, all of them placing the highest possible emphasis on experimentation and the kind of wondrous, personal uncertainty that can only result from the photographer, and not the camera, being in charge. The rebirth of instant camera’s, the refusal of film to “die”, the Lomography movement…. all are happening, not because of any sage wisdom in these pages, but because art cannot stand still, and will always reject the notion that everything’s already been invented, or that all the great images have already been shot.
The journey from taking pictures to making pictures remains irresistible, and, as it happens, inevitable. Thank you once again for joining us on that road.
January 10, 2018 | Categories: Commentary, Conception, Uncategorized | Tags: Essay, opinion, Philosophy | Leave a comment