By MICHAEL PERKINS
ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S CLASSIC REAR WINDOW IS THE ULTIMATE GUILTY PLEASURE, and not just because the Master of Suspense is at the peak of his edge-of-your-seat powers in the telling of its thrilling murder story. No, the massive, full-sized set of James Stewart’s Manhattan neighborhood, with all its apartment-dwellers’ secrets open to the most casual snoop, is the creepy, giddy candy at the center of this cinematic confection. In making it temporarily okay to be, in effect, peeping toms, Hitchcock is making us complicit in his hero’s unsavory curiosity. All these dramas. All these secrets that we have no right in knowing. And, of course, we can’t look away.
Photographing the intersection of living spaces in city settings is far often more subtle than Hitch’s feat of shaving the back wall off an entire community, and that makes for a lot more mystery, most of us beyond solution. Look too little, and a slab of brick is more like a beehive than a collection of stories. Look too deeply, and the truths you unearth can feel stolen, like an invasion done purely for prurient entertainment. What’s most interesting is to imply much but reveal little, and hitting that balance is tough.
I recently killed off the last fifteen minutes of a generally unproductive night of street shooting by gazing out the window of my nondescript hotel at an equally nondescript apartment building across the way. The last vestiges of dusk offered scant details on the outside wall, and the warm yellow hum of electrical light had already begun to flicker on in the various cubicles. I thought of Rear Window and how you could look at the fully visible doings of people, yet still know virtually nothing of their lives. Here the lighting was random, undefined, with little real information on the life throbbing within the individual spaces….the dead opposite of Hitchcock’s deliberate staging.
I couldn’t see a face, a hand, an activity. All I had was the mere suggestion of human presence. What were they reading, watching, wishing, enduring, enjoying, hating? I couldn’t know and I couldn’t show it, but I could show the mystery itself. I could share, if you will, the sensation of not being able to know. And so I made a photograph of that lack of information.
Some photographs are about things, obvious things that you’re able to freeze in time. Other images are about the idea of something, a kind of unsatisfied anticipation. Both kinds of pictures have their own narrative code, and learning how to manage these special languages is great practice for the idea, and the mind back of it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE SEEMS TO BE A PROPENSITY, WITHIN THE DNA OF EVERY PHOTOGRAPHER, to “show it all”, to flood the frame with as much visual information as humanly possible in an attempt to faithfully render a story. Some of this may track back to the first days of the art, when the world was a vast, unexplored panorama, a wilderness to be mapped and recorded. Early shutterbugs risked their fortunes and their lives to document immense vistas, mountain ranges, raging cataracts, daunting cliffs. There was a continent to conquer, an immense openness to capture. The objectives were big, and the resultant pictures were epic in scale.
Seemingly, intimacy, the ability to select things, to zero in on small stories, came later. And for some of us, it never comes. Accordingly, the world is flooded with pictures that talk too loudly and too much, including, strangely, subjects shot at fairly close range. The urge is strong to gather, rather than edit, to include rather than to pare away. But there are times when you’re just trying to get the picture to “yes”, the point at which nothing else is required to get the image right, which is also the point at which, if something extra is added, the impact of the image is actually diminished. I, especially, have had to labor long and hard to just get to “yes”….and stop.
In the above image, there are only two elements that matter: the border of brightly lit paper lanterns at the edge of a Chinese New Year festival and the small pond that reflects back that light. If I were to exhaust myself trying to also extract more detail from the surrounding grounds or the fence, I would accomplish nothing further in the making of the picture. As a matter of fact, adding even one more piece of information can only lessen the force of the composition. I mention this because I can definitely recall occasions when I would whack away at the problem, perhaps with a longer exposure, to show everything in more or less equal illumination. And I would have been wrong.
Even with this picture, I had to make myself accept that a picture I like this much required so little sweat. Less can actually be more, but we have to learn to get out of our own way….to stop at “yes”.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF YOU WANT TO PUT A SMILE ON MY FACE WHEN I VISIT YOUR CITY, there is no sweeter sentence you can say to me than:
There is, for photographers, one way to maximize your time touring through other people’s towns, and that’s the time-honored tradition of “riding shotgun”. Drive me anywhere, but give me a window seat. I wasn’t trying to go for some kind of personal best in the area of urban side shots in 2013, but by good fortune I did snag a few surprises as I was ferried through various towns, along with a “reject” pile about a mile high. Like any other kind of shooting, the yield in window shooting is very low in terms of “killers per click”, but when you hit the target, you crack through a kind of “I’m new in town” barrier and take home a bit of the street for your own.
This guy just killed me (excuse the expression). He seemed like he was literally waiting for business to drop in (or drop dead), and meanwhile was taking in the view. Probably he didn’t even work for the casket company, in which case, what a bummer of neighbor to pick. Maybe he’s rent controlled.
This one took a little tweaking. The building was actually blue, as you see here, lit with subdued mood for the holidays. However, in lightening this very dark shot, the sky registered as a muddy brown, so I made a dupe, desaturated everything except the conservatory, then added tint back in to make the surrounding park area match the building. All rescued from an “all or nothing” shot.
I’m also ashamed to admit that I bagged a few through-the-window shots while actually driving the car, all done at red lights and so not recommended. Don’t do as I do, do as I……oh, you know.
Here’s to long shots, at horse tracks or in viewfinders, and the few that finish in the money.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE FAMILIAR ADMONITION FROM THE HIPPOCRATIC OATH, the exhortation for doctors to, “First, Do No Harm” has applications to many kinds of enterprises beyond the scope of medicine, photography among them. We are so used to editing, arranging, scouting, rehearsing and re-imagining reality that sometimes, we need merely to eavesdrop on it.
Some pictures are so complete in themselves that, indeed, even minimal interference from a photographer is a bridge too far. Sometimes such images come as welcome relief after a long, unproductive spell of trying to force subjects into our cameras, only to have them wriggle away like so much conceptual smoke. I recently underwent several successive days of such frustration in, of all things, my own home town, fighting quirky weather, blocked access, and a blank wall of my own mental making. I finally found something I can use in (say it all together) the last place I was looking.
In fact, it was a place I hadn’t wanted to be at all.
Columbus, Ohio at night in winter is lots of things, but it’s seldom conducive to any urge more adventurous than reheating the Irish coffee and throwing another log on the fire. At my age, there’s something about winter and going out after sunset that screams “bad idea” to me, and I was reluctant to accept a dinner invite that actually involved my schlepping across the tundra from the outskirts to the heart of downtown. Finally, it was the lure of lox and bagel at Katzinger’s deli, not my artistic wanderlust, that wrenched me loose from hearth and home, and into range of some lovely picture-making territory.
The German Village neighborhood, along the city’s southern edge, has, for over a century, remained one of the most completely intact caches of ethnic architecture in central Ohio, its twisty brick streets evoking a mini-Deutschland from a simpler time. Its antique street lamps, shuttered windows and bricked-in gartens have been an arts and party destination for generations of visitors, casting its spell on me clear back in high school. Arriving early for my trek to Katzie’s, I took advantage of the extra ten minutes to wander down a few familiar old streets, hoping they could provide something….unfamiliar.
The recently melted snowfall of several days prior still lent a warm glaze to the cobbled alleyways, and I soon found myself with city scenes that evoked a wonderful mood with absolutely minimal effort. The light was minimal as well, often coming from just one orange sodium-vapor street lamp, and it made sense to make them the central focus of any shots I was to take, allowing the eye to be led naturally from the illuminated streets at the front of the frame clear on back to the light’s source.
Using my default lens, a 35mm prime at maximum f/1.8 aperture, and an acceptable amount of noise at ISO 800, I clicked away like mad, shooting up and down Blenkner Street, first toward Third Street, then back around toward High. I didn’t try to rescue the details in the shadows, but let the city more or less do its own lighting with the old streets. I capped my lens, stole away like the lucky thief I had become, and headed for dinner.
The lox was great, too. Historic, in fact.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS ONLY ONE KIND OF PICTURE YOU WILL EVER TAKE OF A CAT, and that is the one she allows you to take. Try stealing an image from these spiritual creatures against their will, and you will reign over a bitter kingdom of blur, smear, and near misses.
It’s trickier to take photos of the ectoplasmic projections of departed relatives. But not by much.
I recently encountered this particular lady in a Brooklyn brownstone, a gorgeous building, but not one that is exactly flooded with light, even on a bright day. There are a million romantically wonderful places for darkness to hide inside such wonderful old residences, and any self-respecting feline will know how to take the concept of “stealth” down a whole other road. The cat in the above photo is, believe me, better at instant vaporization and re-manifestation than Batman at midnight in Gotham. She also has been the proud unofficial patrol animal for the place since Gawd knows when, so you can’t pull any cute little “chase-the-yarn-get-your-head-stuck-in-a-blanket” twaddle that litters far too much of YouTube.
You’re dealing with a pro here.
Her, not me.
Plus she’s from Brooklyn, so you should factor some extra ‘tude into the equation.
The only lens that gives me any luck inside this house is a f/1.8 35mm prime, since it’s ridiculously thirsty for light when wide open and lets you avoid the noticeable pixel noise that you’d get jacking up the ISO in a dark space. Thing is, at that aperture, the prime also has a razor-thin depth of field, so, as you follow the cat, you have to do a lot of trial framings of the autofocus on her face, since getting sharp detail on her entire body will be tricky to the point of nutso. And of course, if you move too far into shadow, the autofocus may not take a reading at all, and then there’s another separate complication to deal with.
The best (spelled “o-n-l-y”) solution on this particular day was to squat just inside the front foyer of the house, which receives more ambient light than any other single place in the house. For a second, I thought that her curiosity as to what I was doing would bring her into range and I could get what I needed. Yeah, well guess again. She did, in fact, approach, but got quickly bored with my activity and turned to walk away. It was only a desperate cluck of my tongue that tricked her into turning her head back around as she prepared to split. Take your stupid picture, she seemed to say, and then stop bothering me.
Hey, I ain’t proud.
My brief audience with the queen had been concluded.
I’ll just show myself out……
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.