By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE CHIEF ADVANCE IN THE PROCESS OF MODERN PHOTOGRAPHY, a kind of hitchhiker on the back of the digital revolution, has been the unprecedented scope of choice conferred on the shooter. Much is written about how great pictures are selective extractions from the endless flow of time…how random and important seconds are snatched from that flood tide and “captured”. However, the emphasis, for most of the history of the medium has been on many of us getting that one fortunate moment, with few options for re-takes or even a variety of attempts from which to select our final winners.
If this seems to be an arbitrary distinction between amateurs and pros, well, it sorta is, and that’s because of how the technology and the economics of photography work on each other. Before roll film, even a professional had difficulty in taking multiple frames of the same subject in search of a keeper. The media were unwieldy and expensive. Soon, the consumer-based photo market, created by the first simple mass-produced cameras paired with film, allowed for slightly more breathing room for the average snapper to take more than one crack at his/her quarry…to say, try several different angles on a subject rather than one, but, again, the cost of purchasing and processing film tended to divide the photographic world into amateur and professional ranks. Quite simply, a professional, out of necessity or opportunity or both, could afford an investment in enough film to create choices, or multiple ways of seeing the same thing, whereas the amateur has to budget his shots and invest less money in the pursuit overall.
Digital democratized that entire process, effectively shrinking the photographer’s budget to the purchase of the camera and an occasional memory card (which itself could be wiped and re-used). We immediately shifted from a plan-as-you-go mentality to an all-you-can-eat, shooting-for-free model, which, in turn, changed the results of our picture making. Now newbies can stand in the batter’s box and swing away endlessly in pursuit of their final result, just as the pros always could. Any subject can be given the treatment of an essay, and we have the luxury of going back for seconds, thirds, or whatever is required to develop and eventually deliver on an idea. The image seen above, had I taken it in the age of film, would have been the product of a few snaps, not, as happened digitally, the work of over an hour of walking, planning, experimenting. In the old days, only a pro would have been free to shoot several rolls in search of an iconic image. Now anyone can do it, simply and cheaply.
Photographers who experience this miracle of immersion as everyday reality are freer than shooters in any previous age. We can whittle away years of the ponderous failures that used to take years to accumulate in a matter of weeks or even days. Mistakes are still necessary for the training of the eye, but being able to speed up the process of stylistic evolution is a true liberation. The science and the economics of photography are finally aligned with each other, and although it took some time, time is, finally, on our side, whenever we endeavor to photograph anything.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE HOLIDAY SEASON MAY OFTEN SEEM TO HAVE “OFFICIAL” COLORS, (red, green, etc.) but its unofficial colors reside primarily, and gloriously, in memory. Given how many iterations of photography span most of our lives, our minds tend to twist and tweak colors into highly individualized chromatic channels. Are your most treasured moments in ’50’s Black and White? ’60’s Kodachrome? In the time-tinted magentas of snaps from the 70’s? In blue-green Super 8 Ektachrome or expired Lomo film? Or do you dream in Photoshop?
This is personal stuff, very personal. It seems like we ought to agree universally on the “correct” colors of the season, but, given that our most precious holiday moments are preserved on various archival media, it might be our memory of seeing these events “played back” that is stronger than our actual remembrance of them. As Paul Simon says, everything looks worse in black and white, or in this case, what really happened pales in comparison to our print, Polaroid, movie and slide souvenirs.
This means that there are a million subliminal color “cues” that trigger memory, and not all of them come from “correctly” exposed images. Color is mood, and seasonal pictures can benefit greatly from the astounding range of processing tools suddenly available to everyone. Not all photographs benefit from apps and digital darkroom massages, for sure, but their use is perhaps more seductive, in this mental mid-point between reality and memory than at other times of the year. Fantasy is in play here, after all, and fantasy has no “right” hue. Dreams are too vast a realm to be confined to the basics, so ’tis the season to dip into a wider paintbox.
Memory needs room to breathe, and the photographs that help them fully fill their lungs become the gifts that keep on giving.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I RECENTLY CAME ACROSS AN ARTICLE IN WHICH A PHOTOGRAPHER BEMOANED the insane volume of images being shot in the digital era. His point was that, while we used to be tightly disciplined in the “budgeting” of shots back in the days of film (in which we had a fixed limit on our shots of 24 or 36 frames), we crank away an infinite number of shots today in short order, many of them near duplicates of each other, flooding the universe with a torrent of (mostly) bad pictures. Apparently, he posits, it is because we can shoot and re-shoot without fear of failure that we make so many mediocre images.
He takes it further, proposing that, as a means of being more mindful in the making of our photos, that we buy a separate memory card and shoot a total of, say, two “rolls” of pics, or 72 total images, forcing ourselves to keep every image, without deletions or retakes, and live with the results for good or ill. I have all kinds of problems with this romantic but basically ill-conceived stunt.
Our illustrious writer and I live on different sides of the street. He seems to believe that the ability to shoot tons of images leads to less mindful technique. I believe the exact opposite.
When you are free, via digital photography, to experiment, to correct your errors on the fly, you suddenly have the ability to save more shots, simply because you can close in on the best method for those shots much faster, and at a fraction of the cost, of film. You collapse a learning curve that used to take decades into the space of a few years. One of the things that used to separate great photographers from average ones was the great shooters’ freedom, usually from a financial standpoint, to take more bad (or evolving) images than the average guys could afford to. Of course, really bad photographers can go for years merely continuing to take more and more lousy shots, but the fact is, in most cases, taking more photos means learning more, and, often, eventually making better pictures.
Apparently, our illustrious writer believes that you can only be photographically self-aware if you are constantly reminded how few total frames you’re going to be able to shoot. I truly appreciate the goal of self-reliant, experience-based photography he wants to promote. But I contend that it’s not that we make too many pictures, but that we keep too many. It’s the skill of editing, that unemotional, ice-cold logic in deciding how few of our pictures are “keepers”, that is needed, not some nostalgic longing for the strictures of film.
Hey, of course we over-share too many near-identical frames of our latest ham sandwich. Of course Instagram is as clogged as a sink trap fulla hair with millions of pictures that should never see the light of day. But that’s not because we can shoot pictures too easily. It’s because we don’t grade our output on a stern enough curve. As it gets easier to shoot, it should get tougher to meet muster.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I’M BIG ON CELEBRATING THE FACT THAT DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY HAS REMOVED THE LAST FEW BARRIERS to photography being truly democratic. Just as the introduction of the Kodak Brownie in 1900 moved picture-making out of the salons of the privileged few and into the hands of John Q. Everyman, digital has been another quantum leap toward a level playing field, putting cameras almost literally into everyone’s hand. This, as with all mass movements, has both its pluses and minuses.
Digital photography has actually improved one democracy (everyone can afford to shoot) and created a second one (everyone can afford to fix what they shoot). For nearly the entire film era, processing after the shutter click was, for many of us, a luxury item. For initial developing, we defaulted to the guy at the regional Kodak plant or the corner Rexall. True hobbyists and professionals wielded most of the tools available for drastic makeovers of images, with most of us merely accepting what we got. Our near misses simply went into the loss column, while others‘ near misses could sometimes be revamped into acceptable, even exceptional photos. The titans of the photographic world (Ansel Adams and others) were renowned for their ability to creatively manipulate negatives into prints of rare art. Most of the rest of us clutched our Instamatics tightly and hoped for the best.
Unfortunately, digital has over-corrected a bit in giving Everyman the chance to salvage more shots. Instead of developing habits that are, say, 75% good shooting and 25% good processing, we have instead veered toward the opposite, with more time than ever spent “fixing” shots that were ill-conceived in the first place. Moreover, many of these fixes, mounted on apps, are general, one-click options that deny us the finely tuned control that a good film era darkroom rat would have acquired. We have gained access to the information highway, but we still drive like teenagers. We are all over the road.
I see more professionals advocating a return,not to the format of film, but the shooting discipline of film. How differently would we shoot, for example, if it were still true that we wouldn’t have a lot of options for fixing our shots later? What strategies would develop if we had to make or break our shots in the camera, without any opportunity for tweaking them thereafter? Most importantly, which of our images could stand alone as straight out of the camera executions, as products of real, hard-earned skill rather than the comfort in knowing we could probably crop, resize, re-color or repair almost anything?
Now, I am not suggesting we all go back to making our furniture out of pine logs. I am not the last guy in town to trade in my horse for a Model A. I merely think that we need to re-introduce self-reliance into the picture-making process, to shoot as if it’s all on us, as if no Tech Avenger will ride to the rescue if we blow the shot in-camera. In fact, I am arguing for what I always argue for….personal responsibility for getting the shot right in the moment. Frame it, conceive it, expose it right the first time. It teaches us better habits, it increases our actual knowledge of what we’re doing, and it speeds our advancement as nothing else can.
Digital is a fabulous box of paints. Now we need to re-learn how to hold the brush.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
“You’re wrong. She is a phony. But on the other hand you’re right. She isn’t a phony because she’s a real phony. She believes all this crap she believes.”
—Truman Capote, Breakfast At Tiffany’s
THE ABOVE REFERENCE TO MISS HOLLY GOLIGHTLY, she of the powder room mad money, also applies very neatly to Hollywood, California. The official kingdom of fakery has been in the business of fabricating fantasy for so long, it actually treats its hokum as holy writ. Legends and lore become facts of life, at least our collective emotional life. Dorothy’s ruby slippers (even though they were originally silver) draw more attention than actual footwear from actual persons. Wax figures of imaginary characters are viewed by more people than will ever examine the real remains of wooly mammoths at the La Brea Tar Pits. And, when it comes to the starstruck mini-Vegas that is the nexus of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue, even a fake of a fake seems like a history lesson.
Hollywood and Highland is one grand, loud, crude note of Americana, from its out-of-work actors sweating away in Wookie suits in front of the Chinese theatre to its cheesy Oscar paperweights at the souvie shops. This small stretch of carnival, high-caloric garbage chow, and surreal retail is a version of a version, a recreation of a creation, a “real phony” rendition of cinema, defined by its resurrection of the great gate of Babylon, which anchors a multi-level mall adjacent to the Dolby Theatre, the place where all those genuine cheesy paperweights are given each year. The gate and the two enormous white elephants that flank it are a partial replica of D.W. Griffith’s enormous set for the fourth portion of his silent 1916 epic Intolerance. The full set had eight elephants, an enormous flight of descending stairs, two side wings, and a crowd that may have originally inspired the term “cast of thousands”. That’s how they did ’em back in the day, folks. No matte paintings, no CGI, no greenscreen. We gotta build Babylon on the back set, boys, and we only got a week to do it, so let’s get cracking.
The original set, which stood at Hollywood and Sunset, was, by 1919, a crumbling eyesore and, in the city’s opinion, a fire hazard. Griffith, who lost his shirt on Intolerance, didn’t have the money to demolish it himself, and eventually it fell into sufficient disrepair to make knocking it down more cost-effective. Hey, who knew that it might make a great backdrop for a Fossil store 2/3 of a century later? But Hollywood never balks at the task of making a fake of a fake, so the Highland Center’s ponderous pachyderms overlook throngs of visitors who wouldn’t know D.W. Griffith from Merv Griffin from Gryffindor, and the world spins on.
Photographing this strange monument is problematic since nearly all of it is crawling with people at any given moment. Forget about the fact that you’re trying to take a fake image of a fake version of a fake set. Just getting the thing framed up is an all-day walkabout. So, at the end of my quest, what did I do to immortalize this wondrous imposter? Took an HDR to ramp up an artificial sense of wear and tear, and slapped on some sepia tone.
But it’s okay, because I’m a real phony. I believe all the crap I believe.
Hooray for Hollywood.
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.