By MICHAEL PERKINS
I DON’T POSSESS THE TALENT FOR COMPARTMENTALIZATION that pros like Annie Leibovitz or Richard Avedon have shown in making extremely intimate “final” images of the most important people in their lives. Annie’s sad, understated portraits of the last days of her partner Susan Sontag are oddly comforting, in contrast to the harrowing loneliness of Avedon’s images of his dying father, but, in both cases, they managed to force themselves to tell those stories in a way that I could never do. And, given that I believe that the camera can, and should, have universal access to any kind of story, I know that this makes me a bit of a hypocrite.
The reigning champion, my father.
My father, at this writing, is ninety-three years of age, and as fragile as a Japanese paper lantern. He may not be at the volcano’s edge just yet, but, damn, he is certainly in the neighborhood. I recognize the value in photographing the tough as well as the triumphant. And I get that, when I am feeling “reportorial”, that may strike someone else as being predatory, invasive. And my indecisiveness about taking, well, any pictures of him, at this point, has been exacerbated by the nagging realization that, living far from him, as I do, the next snap might well be the last one I will ever take.
During my most recent visit with him, the importance of the individual moments…our every ritual, each major or minor exchange, hung so heavy in the air that picking up my camera just seemed…vulgar, perhaps even disrespectful. How Leibovitz and Avedon could look upon that inexorable ebbing of life, day after day, and still be able to tuck their feelings into a pocket long enough to make an objective subject out of their dear ones….Jesus, the whole thing strikes me as supernatural, like being able to levitate, or render oneself invisible.
I took one picture of Pop the entire week I was around him, and it was just before I was due to fly “home” (what does that word even mean?), during an evening that was actually a little miracle, a night in which Mother and he were both awake, strong, playful even, and most importantly, really there…..present in a way that reminded me of the real, amazing people entombed inside these decaying carapaces. On such a night, through all the pain, despite all the storms on the horizon, there, for a minute, was my Father. Strong. Decisive. Reflective. Dignified.
And, hopefully, not for the last time…
TELLING THE TRUTH
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PICK ANY PHOTOGRAPHIC ERA YOU LIKE, and most of the available wisdom (or literature) will concentrate on honoring some arbitrary list of rules for “successful” pictures. On balance, however, relatively few tutorials mention the needful option of breaking said rules, of making a picture without strict adherence to whatever commandments the photo gods have handed down from the mountain. It’s my contention that an art form defined narrowly by mere obedience is bucking for obsolescence.
It’d be one thing if minding your manners and coloring inside the lines guaranteed amazing images. But it doesn’t, any more than the flawless use of grammar guarantees that you’ll churn out the great American novel. Photography was created by rebels and outlaws, not academics and accountants. Hew too close to the golden rules of focus, exposure, composition or subject, and you may inadvertently gut the medium of its real power, the power to capture and communicate some kind of visual verity.
A photograph is a story, and when it’s told honestly, all the technical niceties of technique take a back seat to that story’s raw impact. The above shot is a great example of this, although the masters of pure form could take points off of it for one technical reason or another. My niece snapped this marvelous image of her three young sons, and it knocked me over to the point that I asked her permission to make it the centerpiece of this article. Here, in an instant, she has managed to seize what we all chase: joy, love, simplicity, and yes, truth. Her boys’ faces retain all the explosive energy of youth as they share something only the three of them understand, but which they also share with anyone who has ever been a boy. This image happens at the speed of life.
I’ve seen many a marvelous camera produce mundane pictures, and I’ve seen five-dollar cardboard FunSavers bring home shots that remind us all of why we love to do this. Some images are great because we obeyed all the laws. Some are great because we threw the rule book out the window for a moment and just concentrated on telling the truth.
You couldn’t make this picture more real with a thousand Leicas. And what else are we really trying to do?
THE ANGEL’S IN THE DETAILS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I IMAGINE THAT, IF SOMEONE UN-INVENTED CHRISTMAS, the entire history of personal photography might be compressed into about twenty minutes. I mean, be honest, was there ever a single event or phase of human experience for which more images were clicked than the holiday season? Just given the sheer number of cameras that were found under the tree and given their first test drive right then and there, you’d have one of the greatest troves of personal, and therefore irreplaceable, images in modern history.
Holidays are driven by very specific cues, emotional and historical.
We always get this kind of tree and we always put it in this corner of the room. I always look for the ornament that is special to me, and I always hang it right here. Oh, this is my favorite song. What do you mean, we’re not having hot chocolate? We can’t open presents until tomorrow morning. We just don’t, that’s all.
If, during the rest of our year, “the devil’s in the details”, that is, that any little thing can make life go wrong, then, during the holidays, the angel’s in the details, since nearly everything conspires to make existence not only bearable, but something to be longed for, mulled over, treasured in age. Photographs seem like the most natural of angelic details, since they lend a gauzy permanence to memory, freezing the surprised gasp, the tearful reunion, the shared giggle.
As the years roll on, little is recalled about who got what sweater or who stood longest in line at GreedMart trying to get the last Teddy Ruxpin in North America. Instead, there are those images…in boxes, in albums, on hard drives, on phones. Oh, look. He was so young. She looks so happy. That was the year Billy came home as a surprise. That was the last year we had Grandma with us. Look, look, look.
So remember, always….the greatest gifts you’ll ever receive aren’t under the tree.
THE LION IN WINTER
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I AM AMAZINGLY BLESSED TO BE ENTERING OLD AGE, STILL TRAILING MY FATHER BY ABOUT TWENTY-THREE YEARS. Defying the odds, statistical probabilities, and luck, my personal North Star is still, at 84, providing me with a point of light to steer by. I cannot imagine a world in which he is not just a few miles ahead of me, gently insisting, “this way.” And, years after the worst the world has to offer has long since stopped generating any panic in me, the thought of life without him remains unimaginable, like trying to envision the world without gravity, or sunlight.
I can’t begin to catalogue the thousands of ways his wisdom and patience have tempered and shaped me, but it’s worth singling out his influence on my visual sense and curiosity as a photographer. I remember his intrepid search for beauty, armed with the simple tool of a Kodak Pony 828 camera, a device which both intrigued and frustrated him. During my childhood, the Pony was the official recorder of dreams, events, and possibility for the Perkins clan. We all cheered when it delivered what Dad saw in his mind’s eye. We all offered sympathy and encouragement when he asked it to see beyond its powers, when a set of Kodachrome slides entered the “better luck next time” category.
As a designer and illustrator for North American Aviation, then, later, as a fine arts teacher, he had a developed eye for beauty, a genuine instinct for how a visual story was framed and shown. Armed with my first cheap plastic camera, I only knew I wanted my images to be as good as his own. His eagerness became my ambition, and, half a lifetime later, I still regard a picture as “good” if the old man sees something in it.
Like many photographers major and minor, I am happy to make my father a subject in my own work. I am recording, interpreting and saluting his life all at once, and trying, in my halting way, to capture, in his face, all of the wisdom I have drawn from him over a lifetime. It’s a tall order, but he always taught me to go a little bit beyond what you think you can deliver. I remember him pushing the Kodak Pony to its limits, and beyond, in impossible situations. Some projects landed with a clunk, but it was always about the next frame, the coming opportunity.
There was…is….no bad photograph. Just mileage markers on the way, toward “gee, who knows?”
Thank you, Dad, for showing me that the journey is everything.
GIVING EVERYTHING AND MORE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN THE SPRING, JUST OUTSIDE OUR FRONT DOOR, THE MOST POIGNANT METAPHOR FOR MOTHERLY LOVE PLAYS OUT in the arms of our immense saguaro cactus. The trunk of this desert giant is regularly pockmarked by the peckings of improvised dwellings, which are temporary apartments for woodpeckers, thrashers and other breeds, and crude nests are typically crammed into the crevices between trunk and arm, so, whatever the season, we are well used to birdsong as the first sound of the morning.
But during late April and early May, an extra dimension of magic occurs when the typically blunt arms sprout hundreds of buds, and, in turn, bundles of gorgeous white cactus flowers. The blossoms are short-lived, opening and folding up dead within the space of a single day, but, for the earliest hours of their brief existence, they are life itself, not only to the regular bird crowd but also the seasonal surplus that flies in for breakfast. Between the blooms and the bugs which orbit them (also in search of nectar), it’s a smorgasbord.
That’s when I think of the sacrifice of mothers.
Birds, like most mothers you know, also spend every waking hour of their days foraging, building, sheltering, feeding, and fretting over the fates of their young. They tremble as their youngsters fledge; they learn to deal with the separation that must occur when their babies become adults in their own right; they deal with the sorrow over those who are destined never to fly. And they go on.
There is a kind of happy terror involved in being a mother, be you bird or biped, and the triumph of Mothers’ Day is that, somehow, that terror is faced, even embraced…..because the gold at the end of that particular rainbow is beyond price.
Hug a mother today, even if she’s not your own.
Especially if she’s not your own.
Connect, and say thank you.
After all, they taught us how to fly.
follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye
- Happy Mother’s Day!! (dannapycher.wordpress.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE LIVE IN AN AGE IN WHICH MOST OF OUR LIVES ARE EXHAUSTIVELY OVER-DOCUMENTED. We are, compared to our recent ancestors, photographically bitmapped from cradle to grave with a constellation of snaps that practically draw an outline around us and everything we do.
Globally, we will take more photographs in two minutes today than the entire world took over the entire 19th century.
That said, it’s amazing how few photos taken of, or by, us really look deeply into our souls, or whatever it is that animates us, makes us truly alive. It’s not that there aren’t enough pictures of us being taken: it’s how inarticulate so many of them are.
But go back just a generation or two, and observe the contrast. Far fewer images of most lives. And, with their increasing rarity or loss, more and more value attached to each and every one of those images that survives. Grandfather is gone, leaving only a handful of curled, cracked, and browning snapshots to mark his passing. But how rich the impact of those remaining pictures. The thirst for more, for a greatest number of clues to who this person was!
How to increase or deepen his spirit without having him here?
Explore the things he left behind. The tools he touched. The places where he invested his spirit, his aura. The parts of the world that he deemed important.
And I say: if you love someone, and have to let them go, use your camera to sniff around the found objects of their lives. It may not conjure them up like a holograph of Obi-Wan, but it will focus your thoughts about them in away which is nearly, well, visual.
I fell in love with the worn little instrument case you see at the top of this page. It belonged to my wife’s father, a man whose life was cut short by illness, a life under-represented in photographs. He made his living with his wits and with his hands. The compass which was carried in this case was a tool of survival, something he used to make his living, to measure out his skill and art. It’s a treasure to have it around to look at, and it’s a privilege to be able to photograph its worn corners, its tattered grain, its rusted buttons. Time has allowed it to speak, louder than its owner ever can, and to act as his visual proxy.
I’ve explored this theme in past posts, because I feel so strongly about the expressive power of things as emblems of lives. Long before our every action could be captured in an endless Facebook page of banal smartphone snaps, images had to work a lot harder, and say more. I’m not saying you should spend the next six months of your life raiding your closets for Ultimate Truth. I am saying you might be walking past a chunk of that Truth every day, and that it might just be worth framing up.
And thinking about.
(let’s help each other find amazing images! Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.)
- Behind the lens (theoriginalblogofthecentury.wordpress.com)
- Old Photographs Given New Life (modcloth.com)
FLATTERY WILL GET YOU NOWHERE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE DEPICTION OF THE FACES OF THOSE WE LOVE IS AMONG THE MOST DIVISIVE QUESTIONS IN PHOTOGRAPHY. Since the beginning of the medium, thoughts on how to capture them “best” clearly fall into two opposing camps. In one corner, the feeling that we must idealize, glamorize, venerate the features of those most special in our lives. In the other corner, the belief that we should capture faces as effects of time and space, that is, record them, without seeking to impose standards of grace or beauty on what is in front of the lens. This leads us to see faces as objects among other objects.
The first, more cosmetic view of faces, which calls for ideal lighting, a flattering composition, a little “sweetening” in the taking, will always be the more popular view, and its resultant images will always be cherished for emotionally legitimate reasons. The second view is, let’s “face” it, a hard sell. You have to be ready for a set series of responses from your subjects, usually including:
Don’t take me. I just got up.
God, I look so old. Delete that.
I hate having my picture taken.
That doesn’t even look like me.
Of course, since no one is truly aware of what they “look like”, there is always an element of terror in having a “no frills” portrait taken. God help me, maybe I really do look like that. And most of us don’t want to push to get through people’s defenses. It’s uncomfortable. It’s awkward. And, in this photo-saturated world, it’s a major trick to get people to drop their instinctive masks, even if they want to.
As I visually measure the advance of age on my living parents (both 80+ ) and have enough etchings on my own features to mirror theirs, I am keener than ever to avoid limiting my images of us all to mere prettiness. I am particularly inspired by photographers who actually entered into a kind of understanding with their closest life partners to make a sort of document out of time’s effects. Two extreme examples: Richard Avedon’s father and Annie Leibovitz’ partner Susan Sontag were both documented in their losing battles with age and disease as willing participants in a very special relationship with very special photographers….arrangements which certainly are out of the question for many of us. And yet, there is so much to be gained by making a testament of sorts out of even simple snaps. This was an important face in my life, the image can say, and here is how it looked, having survived more than 3/4 of a century. Such portraits are not to be considered “right” or “wrong” against more conventional pictures, but they should be at least a part of the way we mark human lives.
Everyone has to decide their own comfort zone, and how far it can be extended. But I think we have to stretch a bit. Pictures of essentially beautiful people who, at the moment the shutter snaps, haven’t done up their hair, put on their makeup, or conveniently lost forty pounds. People in less than perfect light, but with features which have eloquent statements and truths writ large in their every line and crevice. We should also practice on ourselves, since our faces are important to other people, and ours, like theirs, are going to go away someday.
In trying to record these statements and truths, mere flattery will get us nowhere. The camera has an eye to see; let’s take off the rose-colored filter, at least for a few frames.
- The Great Richard Avedon (sandroesposito.wordpress.com)