By MICHAEL PERKINS
I HAVE A THEORY THAT “SERENDIPITY” is just “dumb luck” for pretentious people. Somehow it makes our random discoveries and unplanned miracles sound cooler if we attribute them to some grand lining-up of the planets, as if we apes really meant to discover fire. So, fine. Consider this an incident of serendipity, although it’s mainly a case of “I stepped in sugar instead of….” well, you get the idea.
Setting the scene: a suburban mall near me recently closed its enormous bookstore, applying a dark sheet of tint on the building’s huge windows so gawkers couldn’t spy on the joint’s sad makeover as a furniture store. Of course, if you want to make people curious about something, blacking out the windows is a pretty effective tactic, and there are always plenty of people smashing their faces up against the impermeable tint every day to see what a bookstore looks like when it has, you know, no books in it. I am usually first in line for this ritual.
For some reason this week, a small peephole has been opened in the sheeting, allowing one to see the place’s vast, empty floor, its draped escalator, and an iron tangle of scaffolding, as well as a huge infusion of light from an open-work area at the opposite side of the store. It isn’t quite the “ruin porn” that photographers of dead malls love to record just ahead of the wrecking ball, but eerie enough to make me want to shove my phone camera up against the peephole to try to capture it.
Given the very wide-angle of such devices, however, I discovered, after the click, that the lens had also picked up a portion of the window next to the peephole, a portion still covered by tint and capable of reflecting the scene behind me….various buildings and landscaping of the rest of the mall. Even stranger, the “other” reality behind me melded, through the blurred outline of the peephole and variances of light, with the scene inside the store, as if they were all part of one dreamy landscape, a Hollywood set in transition. Giddy at what I had grabbed by accident, I shot a second frame to compose things a bit better, then converted it to monochrome with a filter that simulates a platinum print effect, an effort to eliminate mismatches in color and tone between the two worlds.
Sinatra once said that “the professional is the guy who can do it more than once”, so this image ranks me solidly among the amateurs. But so what. Whoops. Yay.
PENCIL VS. INK
By MICHAEL PERKINS
RAISED AS THE SON OF AN ILLUSTRATOR WHO WAS ALSO A PHOTOGRAPHER, I have always been more comfortable with the idea of the photographic image as a work-in-progress rather than as a finished thing. That is, I bring a graphic artist’s approach to any project I do, which is to visualize an idea several different ways before committing myself to the final rendering. Call if sketching, roughing, rehearsing…..whatever…but, both on the page/canvas and the photograph, I see things taking shape over the space of many trial “drafts”. And, just as you don’t just step up and draw a definitive picture, you usually can’t just step up and snap a fully realized photo. I was taught to value process over product, or, if you will, journey over destination.
This belief was embodied in my dad’s advice to lay down as many pencil lines as possible before laying in the ink line. Ink meant commitment. We’re done developing. We’re finished experimenting. Ready to push the button and, for better or worse, live with this thing. Therefore the idea of a sketch pad, or preliminary studies of a subject, eventually led to a refined, official edition. This seems consistent with people like Ansel Adams, who re-imagined some of his negatives more than half a dozen times over decades, each print bearing its own special traits, even though his source material was always the same. Similarly, “studies” in music served as miniature versions of themes later realized in full in symphonies or concertos.
The photo equivalent of a sketch pad, for me in 2014, is the phone camera. It’s easy to carry everywhere, fairly clandestine, and able to generate at least usable images under most conditions. This allows me to quickly knock off a few tries on something that, in some cases, I will later shoot “for real” (or “for good”) with a DSLR, allowing me to use both tools to their respective strengths. The spy-eye-I-can-go-anywhere aspect of iPhones is undeniably convenient, but often as not I have to reject the images I get because, at this point in time, it’s just not possible to exert enough creative control over these cameras to give full voice to everything in my mind. If the phone camera is my sketch pad, my full-function camera is my ink and brush. One conceives, while the other refines and commits.
You write things like this knowing full well that technology will make a monkey out of you at its next possible opportunity, and I actually look forward to the day when I am free of the bulk and baggage of what are, at least now, better cameras overall. But we’re not there yet, and may not be for a while. I still make the distinction between a convenient camera and a “real” camera, and I freely admit that bias. A Porsche is still better than a bicycle, and the first time you’re booked as a pianist into Carnegie Hall, your manager doesn’t insist that they provide you with a state-of-the-art….Casio. It’s a Steinway or the highway.
THE MAIN POINT
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MAKING PICTURES, FOR ME, IS LIKE MAKING TAFFY. The only good results I get are from stretching and twisting between two extremes. Push and pull. Yank and compress. Stray and stay. Say everything or speak one single word.
This is all about composition, the editing function of what to put in or leave out. In my head, it’s a constant and perpetually churning debate over what finally resides within the frame. No, that needs something more. No, that’s way too much. Cut it. Add it. I love it, it’s complete chaos. I love it, it’s stark and lonely.
Can’t settle the matter, and maybe that’s the point. How can your eye always do the same kind of seeing? How can your heart or mind ever be satisfied with one type of poem or story? Just can’t, that’s all.
But I do have a kind of mental default setting I return to, to keep my tiny little squirrel brain from exploding.
When I need to clean out the pipes, I tend to gravitate to the simplest compositions imaginable, a back-to-basics approach that forces me to see things with the fewest possible elements, then to begin layering little extras back in, hoping I’ll know when to stop. In the case of the above image, I was shooting inside a darkened room with only an old 1939 World’s Fair paperweight for a subject, and holding an ordinary cheap flashlight overhead with one hand as I framed and focused, handheld, with the other hand. I didn’t know what I wanted. It was a fishing expedition, plain and simple. What I soon decided, however, was that, instead of one element, I was actually working with two.
Basic flashlights have no diffusers, and so they project harsh concentric circles as a pattern. Shifting the position of the flashlight seemed to make the paperweight appear to be ringed by eddying waves, orbit trails if you will. Suddenly the mission had changed. I now had something I could use as the center of a little solar system, so, now,for a third element, I needed “satellites” for that realm. Back to the junk drawer for a few cat’s eye marbles. What, you don’t have a bag of marbles in the same drawer with your shaving razor and toothpaste? What kinda weirdo are you?
Shifting the position of the marbles to suggest eccentric orbits, and tilting the light to create the most dramatic shadow ellipses possible gave me what I was looking for….a strange, dreamlike little tabletop galaxy. Snap and done.
Sometimes going back to a place where there are no destinations and no rules help me refocus my eye. Or provides me with the delusion that I’m in charge of some kind of process.
DRIVING THE IMAGE
YOU CAN FILL A LIBRARY SHELF WITH OPPOSING ARGUMENTS ON LIGHT’S ROLE IN PHOTOGRAPHY, not necessarily a debate on how to capture or measure it, but more a philosophical tussle on whether light is a mere component in a photograph or enough reason, all by itself, for the image to be made, regardless of the subject matter.
The answer, for me, is different every time, although more often than not I make pictures purely because the light is here right now, and it will not wait. I actually seem to hear a clock beginning to tick from the moment I discover certain conditions, and, from that moment forward, I feel as if I am in a kind of desperate countdown to do something with this finite gift before it drifts, shifts, or otherwise mutates out of my reach. Light is running the conversation, driving the image.
“In the right light, at the right time, everything is extraordinary”, the photographer Aaron Rose famously said, and I live for the chance to ennoble or, if you will, sanctify something by how it models or is embraced by light. Certainly I usually go out looking for things to shoot, but time and time again something shifts in my priorities, forcing me to look for ways to shoot.
The practical world will look at a photograph and ask, understandably, “what is that supposed to be?”, or, more pointedly, “why did you take a picture of that?” This makes for quizzical expressions, awkward conversations and sharp disagreements within gallery walls, since our pragmatic natures demand that there be a point, an objective in all art that is as easily identifiable as going to the hardware for a particular screw. Only life, and the parts of life that inspire, can’t ever function that way.
We often decide to make an important picture of something rather than make a picture of something important. That’s not just artsy double-talk. It’s truly the decision that is placed before us.
Alfred Steiglitz remarked that “wherever there is light, photography is possible”. That’s an unlimited, boundless license to hunt for image-makers. Just give me light, the photographer asks, and I will make something of it.
KICK-STARTING THE ENGINE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE POPULAR IMAGE OF A BLOCK-STRICKEN WRITER HELPLESSLY STARING AT A BLANK PAGE is enough to send an empathetic chill up the spine of anyone who has ever been haunted by a deadline or stymied by a narrative suddenly gone dry. And I am convinced, as both a writer and a photographer, that there is an equivalent “block” lurking in the shadows for any shooter, a visual desert that produces stretches of formless, pointless images, dry spells that are terrifying because they are open-ended. No one knows why, for everyone from time to time, the pictures stop coming, and no one can predict when they will come back.
It’s terrifying, because it’s as if vision or imagination were accounts that one can overdraw, bouncing artistic checks all over town and leaving you feeling, like Alice, that there is no bottom, only more hole. At least it’s terrifying to me.
As I write this, I have just come off several weeks of scrapings and scraps that should have been photographs but instead are equivalent to something smeared by an ape on his cage wall. I have seldom experienced such an extended period of mega-nothing, and it is only my unswerving oath to myself to shoot something, anything, every single day, that has allowed me to keep faith with the inevitable return of whatever eye I sometime possess. But, I have to admit, I am also suppressing strong urges to, like Norman Bates, lock my camera inside a car trunk and seek out the nearest swamp.
Okay, that’s a tad dramatic, but my current case of the “drys” is unnerving for a particular reason. I am typically able to conjure pictures out of nearly nothing, which is more liberating than having to wait for obvious or “big” projects. You can shoot daily if you can get off on still lifes of plastic spoons. You can’t shoot daily if you need a vacation, a birthday, or a mountain for inspiration. So it’s doubly troubling if you can’t even summon up the humble crumbs needed for some kind of image.
I know, that, at one point or another, something will demand my attention/obsession, and we’ll be off to the races again. But there is always the nagging question. What happens if I can’t kick-start the engine? Everything has a beginning and an end. So…?
Oh, wait, the light is doing something really cool just now…..
MAKING THE MIRACLES MUNDANE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
GIVEN OUR USUAL HUMAN PROPENSITY FOR USING PHOTOGRAPHY AS A LITERAL RECORDING MEDIUM, most of our pictures will require no explanation. They will be “about” something. They will look like an object or a person we have learned to expect. They will not be ambiguous.
The rest, however, will be mysteries…..big, uncertain, ill-defined, maddening, miraculous mysteries. Stemming either from their conception or their execution, they may not immediately tell anyone anything. They may ring no familiar bells. They may fail to resemble most of what has gone before. These shots are both our successes and failures, since they present a struggle for both our audiences and for ourselves. We desperately want to be understood, and so it follows that we also want our brainchildren to be understood as well. Understood…and embraced.
It cannot always be, and it should not always be.
No amount of explanatory captioning, “backstory” or rationalization can make clear what our images don’t. It sounds very ooky-spooky and pyramid- power to say it, but, chances are, if a picture worked for you, it will also work for someone else. Art is not science, and we can’t just replicate a set of coordinates and techniques and get a uniform result.
There is risk in making something wonderful….the risk of not managing to hit your mark. It isn’t fatal and it should not be feared. Artistic failure is the easiest of all failures to survive, albeit a painful kick in the ego. I’m not saying that there should never be captions or contextual remarks attached to any image. I’m saying that all the verbal gymnastics and alibis in the world won’t make a space ship out of a train wreck.
The above image is an example. If this picture does anything for you at all, believe me, my explanation of how it was created will not, repeat, not enhance your enjoyment of it one particle. Conversely, if what I tried is a swing and a miss, in your estimation, I will not be able to spin you a big enough tale to see magic where there is none. I like what I attempted in this picture, and I am surprisingly fond of what it almost became along the way. That said, I am perfectly fine with you shrugging your shoulders and moving on to the next item on the program.
Everything is not for everybody. So when someone sniffs around one of your photographs and asks (brace for it), “What’s that supposed to be?”, just smile.
And keep taking pictures.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.
- Weakness as Potential Strength (munchow.wordpress.com)
- Hidden Surprises in the Mundane (piconomy.wordpress.com)
BEYOND THE THING ITSELF
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU NO DOUBT HAVE YOUR OWN “RULES” as to when a humble object becomes a noble one to the camera, that strange transference of energy from ordinary to compelling that allows an image to do more than record the thing itself. A million scattered fragments of daily life have been morphed into, if not art, something more than mundane, and it happens in an altogether mysterious way somewhere between picking it and clicking it. I don’t so much have a list of rules as I do a sequence of instincts. I know when I might have stumbled across something, something that, if poked, prodded or teased out in some way, might give me pleasure on the back end. It’s a little more advanced than a crap shoot and a far cry from science.
With still life subjects, unlike portraits or documentary work. there isn’t an argument about the ethics or “purity” of manipulating the material….rearranging it, changing the emphasis, tweaking the light. In fact, still lifes are the only kinds of pictures where “working it” is the main objective. You know you’re molding the material. You want to see what other qualities or aspects you can reveal by, well, kind of playing with your food. It’s like Richard Dreyfuss shaping mashed potatoes into the Devil’s Tower.
If I have any hard and fast rule about still lifes, it may be to throw out my trash a little slower. I can recall several instances in which I was on my way the garbage can with something, only to save it from oblivion at the last minute, turn it over on a table, and then try to tell myself something new about it from this angle or that. The above image, taken a few months ago, was such a salvage job, and, for reasons only important to myself, I like what resulted. Hey, Rauschenburg glued egg cartons on canvas. This ain’t new.
My wife had packed a quick fruit and nut snack into a piece of aluminum foil, forgot to eat it, and brought it back home in her lunch sack. In cleaning out the sack, I figured she would not want to take it a second day and started to throw it out. Re-wrapped several times, the foil now had a refractive quality which, in conjunction with window light from our patio, seemed to amp up the color of the apple slice and the almonds. Better yet, by playing with the crinkle factor of the foil, I could turn it into a combination reflector pan and bounce card. Five or six shots worth of work, and suddenly the afternoon seemed worthwhile.
I know, nuts.
Fruits and nuts, to be exact. Hey, if we don’t play, how will we learn to work? Get out on the playground. Make the playground.
And inspect your trash as you roll it to the curb.
Hey, you never know.